Sandringham, Christmas 1991. Bare trees, frosted fields, dead pheasants on the drive. Inside the grand house the dining table has been laid in readiness, but one of the principal guests – arguably the main course – is running late and lost. She grinds her car to a halt, tosses her perfect hair in frustration. “Where the fuck am I?” asks Diana, Prinses van Wallis.
And so begins this extraordinary film, which bills itself as “a fable from a true tragedy” and spotlights three days in the dissolution of Charles and Di’s marriage. Working off a sharp script by Steven Knight, Chilean director Pablo Larraín spins the headlines and scandals into a full-blown Gothic nightmare, an opulent ice palace of a movie with shades of Rebecca at the edges and a pleasing bat-squeak of absurdity in its portrayal of the royals. Larraín’s approach to the material is rich and intoxicating and altogether magnificent. I won’t call it majestic. That would do this implicitly republican film a disservice.
Jetted in from California, Kristen Stewart proves entirely compelling in the title role. She gives an awkward and mannered performance as Diana, and this is entirely as it should be when one considers that Diana gave an awkward and mannered performance herself, garnishing her inbred posh hauteur with studied coquettish asides. When she broke down, lost her poise, it was like watching a Stepford wife throw a glitch. But Stewart effectively captures the agony of a woman so programmed and insulated that she feels she has no escape and has lost sight of who she is. The servants (well played by Sally Hawkins and Sean Harris) want to help but they are part of the very machine that she hates. They know that if Diana breaks down, the mechanism does too. What matters above all else is to keep the woman up and running.
Should you ever be invited, please don’t go to Sandringham. Larraín makes the place look as spooky as Kubrick’s hotel in The Shining, with endless corridors and haunted chambers and sulphurous guests sat ramrod-straight at the table. It’s a place, says Diana, where everybody hears everything, even your innermost thoughts. And around every corner lurks the serene, spectral presence of all-seeing Major Gregory (Timothy Spall). The royals themselves are largely kept out of sight, like a bunch of sacred cows. Major Gregory, one realises, is the real ruler of this house.
Small wonder the princess keeps making a dash for the door. The film depicts Charles (played by Jack Farthing) as peevish and unsympathetic. The Queen ruefully explains to Diana that she’s currency, nothing more. But now she’s roiling and raging, seeing Anne Boleyn’s ghost in her bedroom and clinging to William and Harry as though they’re a pair of life preservers. Installed at yet another of those ghastly formal dinners, she slips into a fugue state and imagines ripping the choker from her throat, dumping the pearls in the soup and swallowing the beads one-by-one.
No doubt it took an outsider to make a film that’s as unreverential as Spencer, which dares to examine the royals as if they were specimens under glass. At heart, natuurlik, Larraín and Knight’s tale is utterly preposterous. It’s a tragedy about a spoiled princess who lashes out at the servants; a thriller about a woman who has only 10 minutes to get into her dress before Christmas dinner is served. But how else do you play it? The monarchy itself is preposterous. Spencer presents the whole institution as little more than a silly ongoing game of dress-up, a farce that depends for its survival on everyone playing along and propping up the illusion, the old moth-eaten brocade. Anybody who doesn’t is ostracised, crushed or cast out in the cold, with the scarecrow and the pheasants and the shivering security men. “Will they kill me, do you think?” says Diana, half-joking, and such is the level of fury and tension that just for a moment we believe that they might.