A fable “from a true tragedy,” reads a caption at the beginning of Spencer, which – with all eyes on Kristen Stewart, the latest incarnation of Princess Diana on screen – had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last night.
The caption might as well have been “a tureen of sheer whimsy,” from which director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight brag the imagined events at Sandringham during the three days of Christmas 1991, which saw the marriage between Charles and Diana irretrievably broken.
The reference to the service would have been appropriate. Spencer is dripping with symbolism and metaphor – like Diana’s beautiful neck dripping with jewels – and food is at the heart of it.
One of the craziest moments comes at Christmas Eve dinner, when she tears off a pearl necklace identical to one Charles also gave to Camilla (not that the C-word is ever actually mentioned).
The huge pearls then splash into Diana’s soup, whereupon she promptly begins to mock before, of course, throwing them up later. The poor woman’s bulimia looms up in this film—and loudly.
A fable “from a true tragedy,” reads a caption at the beginning of Spencer, who – with all eyes on Kristen Stewart, the latest incarnation of Princess Diana on screen – had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last night.
Her bulimia issues, of course, also appeared in the Netflix series The Crown – although The Crown certainly isn’t. But that was clearly never the intention. Instead, Spencer is presented as a fairy tale turned upside down: the fragile beauty who loses her prince.
That said, for all its considerable dramatic license — some of which is fanciful enough to send seasoned royal viewers outrageous — the film relies almost entirely on Stewart’s portrayal of the princess.
You only see the differences in the beginning. But gradually, such is the expertise of the Hollywood star, all you see is Diana. It’d be hard to mess up the flippant haircut from 30 years ago, but she also nails the husky voice and Sloaney accent, as well as that curiously seductive mix of restraint and directness.
Where she can’t replicate Diana is on the ward; Stewart is much shorter. But then the height doesn’t seem to matter to Larrain.
The Queen (Stella Gonet) looks like she’s stuffing herself with steroids. She’s not much smaller than the Duke of Edinburgh (Richard Sammel) – who, by the way, seems to spend the entire film as an elective mute.
Still, this is Diana’s story, and it may be because we already know it so well that Larrain and Knight take some mischievous liberties with what we know to be true.
Her outsider status is rammed home from the get-go, when she loses her way and drives herself to Norfolk. Once she gets to Sandringham, she can’t open a door without running into strict royal protocol.
Usually this is represented by the Queen Mother’s hideout, Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) – one of those buttoned-up patrician Scots for whom sex is they deliver the coals in – who has been sent from Clarence House to watch her closely. to hold.
Diana’s only friends in the household are the chef (Sean Harris) and in particular her favorite dresser Maggie – beautifully played by Sally Hawkins with a stern pageboy haircut.
The caption might as well have been ‘a tureen of sheer whimsy’, from which director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight brag the imagined events at Sandringham during the three days of Christmas 1991, when the marriage between Charles and Diana was irretrievably broken.
Of the two sweetest scenes in the film, one is where Maggie declares her own true feelings for the princess, and the other is when Diana plays a game of soldier commando with her beloved boys.
And what, you may ask, about Charles? Well, he’s played by Jack Farthing as a cold fish straight out of the freezer, with no more decency and compassion than the same actor as Poldark’s villainous George Warleggan.
The film – and by extension Diana – is extravagantly concerned with the parallels between her and the ill-fated 16th-century Queen Anne Boleyn. In fact, Anne’s (Amy Manson) ghost accompanies Diana when she sneaks away from Sandringham to visit Park House, her now boarded-up family home nearby, to enjoy some wistfully happy memories.
But Charles is not Henry VIII – and never was. Spencer’s crushing irony, and perhaps its greatest shortcoming, is that it’s meant to make the public feel sorry for the princess. Even the score of plaintive and ominous strings, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, seems calculated to do just that. But it might distract their sympathy for the prince instead.
This misjudgment could be because Larrain, a Chilean, is an outsider himself. Certainly, for anyone familiar with the English countryside, the replacement of Sandringham and its grounds with a German schloss is somewhat shocking.
On the other hand, Larrain has form in describing the life of a tragic icon of the 20th century. He made Jackie, the well-received 2016 film about Jacqueline Kennedy. And Knight, the creator of Peaky Blinders, is a hugely accomplished screenwriter.
Nevertheless, despite the enthusiastic reception in Venice and despite Stewart’s excellence in the lead role, Spencer left me with only one overwhelming feeling: bring on the new series The Crown.
SPENCER will hit UK cinemas later this year.