If you’ve been to the cinema recently, you’ll have no doubt seen the trailer for Chilian director Pablo Larraín’s new film, Spencer, which hits screens today. While an angelic choir of children sings a stirring acapella cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’, we see Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana stare forlornly out of windows, run through the halls of Sandringham House in a beautiful ballgown and dance around a room with her children, young princes William and Harry. With its haunting score, sweeping shots of country estates and close-ups of a wide-eyed Diana, you’d be forgiven for thinking Spencer is another gorgeously shot royal drama, like The Crown. It’s anything but.
We’ll say this up front: Spencer is going to be divisive. While it begins like many period pieces would – string orchestras, striking costumes, lots of curtseying – by the time Diana is seated for Christmas Eve supper, Spencer has begun to reveal its surreal undertones. Faced down by the stoney-faced Windsors – Diana has just committed the ultimate faux-pas: she arrived at the royal residence after the Queen – she’s forced to eat a bowl of soup. Clutching at a new set of pearls gifted to her by her husband – who bought the exact same necklace for Camilla Parker-Bowles – the chain snaps and lands in her bowl. She proceeds to eat the pearls, green soup dripping down her chin as she does. This is the first sign this isn’t your average faithful re-enactment. It’s a rollercoaster of one moment thinking it’s a superb subversion of everything you expect from a royal drama, and the next simply wondering: what on earth?
Throughout a series of ever-more disturbing events, Kristen Stewart shines. She looks just like Diana and has her mannerisms and Sloaney accent down – sometimes these are almost played for laughs. She wears the clothes perfectly, from her Christmas Day gown that shows how slim she’s become due to her eating disorder, to a pair of high-waisted jeans and a cream rollneck she dons when playing with her boys. Yes, it’s deliberately overblown in places, but the ultimate effect of her performance is to prompt immense sympathy from the audience. It’ll certainly earn her nominations come awards season. Meanwhile, Jack Farthing’s Prince Charles is cold and callous to the core, cruelly snapping at his wife every time the pair share the screen.
While the other royals barely get a word in – even Stella Gonet as the Queen has about three lines in the entire film, though her icy stares say plenty – three members of the royal household make an impact and add moments of humanity to the film. First there’s Maggie (Sally Hawkins), Diana’s dresser and confidante, who wipes away the princess’s tears and covers up her frequent bouts of bulimia. Then there’s head chef Darren (Sean Harris), who offers hushed advice and makes Diana her favourite pudding – apricot souffle – despite knowing she won’t touch it. Finally, Timothy Spall’s hard-nosed Major Gregory transforms from a by-the-book loyalist to the Firm to surprising ally.
As we approach Boxing Day, the tension mounts. The princess’s bulimia is an aspect of the film that’s made distressing for the audience, but it’s cleverly done. There are moments of genuine body horror reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan – so much so, our audience gasped. Yet this all comes together to help you get into the mind of Diana, and truly live her mania and paranoia. All this is underpinned by a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who alternates between unexpected jazz and soaring strings to unsettling effect. Where the surrealism doesn’t quite work is in Diana’s strange obsession with fellow doomed royal spouse Anne Boleyn, which – for us – veers into silliness.
Along the way, there are genuinely joyful, laugh-out-loud moments among the darkness. They come mostly when Diana shares the screen with her boys, whether that’s secretly opening Christmas presents in the middle of the night or stealing them away for a car ride with the roof down and music turned up. It’s extremely moving that after the outlandishness of the film’s centrepiece, the film ends with a portrayal of absolute love.
Yes, it’s bonkers and not at all what you might expect, but why else do we go to the cinema? If you’re after a more faithful account of proceedings, stick to The Crown. But if you want a properly cinematic experience that challenges and surprises, book a ticket for Spencer. Everyone’s going to be talking about it.
Spencer is in cinemas now.