I’m sure there’s a very funny edit of Spencer to be made, perhaps involving Reeves and Mortimer appearing at inopportune moments while Kristen Stewart’s Prince Di reels, dazed and confused, around the halls of Sandringham, faithfully accompanied by Johnny Greenwood’s free-jazz snoodlings. The picture’s random and deranged enough as it is, so it would require very little prodding to fracture its deadly-serious face ache and daub across it instead a splash of levity. Or how about Terry Gilliam in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas mode, replacing visions of Liz et al with his animatronic casino reptiles (the referenced perpetually frigid Sandringham interiors underline such potentialities)?
The main ticket here is Stewart, of course, no longer a moonstruck vampire lover but a genuine actress, fashionista and lesbian icon. Yes, she’s blossomed in recent years, even if her embodiment of Diana still carries about it a touch of jaundice. While I see no evidence the greater public agree (witness the box office performances of Charlie’s Angels and Underwater), she undoubtedly heads a fervent fanbase, and she’s about the only nominee for this year acting Oscars (in any category) to muster a glimmer of surprise or trace of the unexpected. As such, despite the movie itself, she’d get my vote right now (I’ve yet to see Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers – I’m sure she’s very good – or Jesscia Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye – I’m sure she’s very prostheticised).
Stewart’s Diana is certainly the most proficient impersonation I’ve seen this side of Rory Bremner. She has the cow-eyed space cadet posing down pat, if occasionally slipping into Richard E Grant when it comes to the delivery. Unfortunately, Pablo Lorrain’s film ups the antic ante from Steven Knight’s already gibbering screenplay, such that you’re left with very little but demented Di going quietly potty as her cold, invasive in-laws look on, disdainful and highly unamused. Spencer very quickly becomes a tiresome overload of the senses, one that sees fit to roam aimlessly for almost two hours. Two hours of Claire Mathon’s handheld camera burrowing up Stewart’s nose, so as to emphasise her intruded-upon, vulnerable state. Had this been directed by peak Jeunet and Caro, the picture might have stumbled into benign eccentricity. But it wasn’t.
Spencer is set over Christmas 1991, with a disorientated Di doing everything she can to avoid spending time with her royals-in-law, as you would if you have any sense. This involves getting lost in the Norfolk countryside, chin wagging with the household’s head chef (Sean Harris), being barracked by the head of staff (Timothy Spall), stealing time with Harry (Freddie Spry) and Wills (Jack Nielsen), confiding in her royal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), visiting the cavernous larder and haunting her childhood home.
She also talks to a pheasant, eats a pearl necklace – with some soup, to make it go down better – indulges her bulimia, steals a coat from a scarecrow, mutilates herself with wire cutters, dances with her younger selves, and converses with the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Some of these are fevered imaginings, such that by the point Maggie confesses love to Di on a windswept beach, I was none too sure if this wasn’t fantasy also. I think the Mike and the Mechanics bit is supposed to be real, but I have no idea why anyone would actually want to listen to that song, less still sing along to it.
One might commend Knight for avoiding the “just-another-biopic” route, but the royal Repulsion course isn’t necessarily a rewarding substitute, particularly given Larrain is so utterly pedestrian in visualising it (Kubrickian corridors here, subjective camera there). Combined with Mathon’s preference for soft light and overly naturalistic visual palette (the picture was shot on film, shockingly), the effect is of a rather irritating daydream.
As such, one might be tempted to sympathise with those attempting to snap the People’s Princess out of it, but Spall’s Alistair Gregory is a clipped, starchy so and so, chiding her for appearing el flagrante at her open window and comparing her to a horse that needs taming. Spall’s distracting drastic weight reduction has left him with a face like a pair of deflated bellows, once generous but now severe. Charles (Jack Farthing), meanwhile, is actively antagonistic and disapproving, instructing her over the divide of a crimson pool table that it is incumbent upon them “to be able to make your body do things you hate”. This, combined with Diana’s “Perhaps they just want to take photos of what’s really going on”, might suggest, if one wishes to look for it, a royal court of malignant unplumbed depths. Harris takes on the biggest challenge of his career, playing a sympathetic character (he isn’t entirely successful). Hawkins is fine, but her character twist is a silly plug for Di being for the people, all people. Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel and Elizabeth Berrington fill out the ranks of royals.
I couldn’t count myself a Di fan – and even less so a royal one – so any fascination with her life, beyond the circumstances of her death (and the conspiracy ne plus ultra one that she’s still alive*), escapes me. I’m also no great advocate for biopics – I’ve seen neither Larrain’s last, Jackie, nor Kristen’s Seberg – but occasionally a fresh approach rises above the chafe. With Knight’s features record of late, there was hardly much chance. His tone-poem take is hardly standard for him, but neither was the attempt (and ultimate failure) to stretch himself with Serenity.
Spencer is prefaced with the nonsensical “A fable from a true tragedy”, but it admittedly sets the table for the indulgence that follows. Stewart’s painstakingly peculiar loony tune turn is noteworthy, but Larrain does his best to smother her in the pea soup of third-rate phantasms. Notable, nevertheless, for establishing that KFC is superior to the slop served up by the royal kitchens. Is freedom from the shackles of establishment patronage a KFC or a big nothing burger? Like Larrain’s movie.
*Addendum 01/09/22: That and her being married to Sir Donald. I wonder how she feels about having played by a young man?
First published by Now in Full Color on 02/03/22.