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Review: Spencer – “The monarchy film we never knew we needed.”

Image Courtesy of TIFF

A little while back news seeped out on the film wires that a new movie about Diana, Princess of Wales, was on the cards, with the title role played by American Kristen Stewart (Twilight, Personal Shopper). Like me, you may have rolled your eyes – here we go, another cash stab at ‘royal realism’, falling somewhere in-between the carriage wheels of Downton Abbey and The Crown, but shifting millions from the hands of royal tea-towel collectors. The faded memory of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s forgettable Diana, starring Naomi Watts (7% on RT) bubbled up like a soggy Earl Grey tea-bag.

What I certainly wasn’t expecting was a radical impressionistic melodrama that is on the cards as being one of the finest folk-horror tinged epics of this decade. It is set over the three days of Christmas in 1991. Charles and Di have been married for ten years and the rot is clear. The film is directed by Chilean Pablo Larraín  (Jackie) and shot almost entirely in Germany with a splash of Norfolk and London.

Starting with a somber procession of military vehicles heading to Sandringham, the film disquiets us from the get-go. This version of the Queen’s getaway estate in Norfolk is lifted almost directly from The Others, a time-locked capsule bathed in fog.

Di arrives late in her Porsche cabriolet. She knows what she is heading into, a fly (un)willingly driving herself into a web.

She is immediately timetabled according to tradition. She must weigh herself, evidently traumatic to a woman with an eating disorder, and then immediately progress to sandwiches. Timothy Spall (The Damned United, Mr. Turner) as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory keeps her under intense scrutiny (for her own protection), every owlish angle on his impassive face watching, watching, watching. One scene where he encounters Diana scoffing from the larder post-supper feels like a tribute to the Delbert Grady “you’ve always been the caretaker” bathroom sequence in The Shining.

While I describe this film as a melodrama, do not think for a moment it is a soap, all about tense arguments between various royals. The main protagonist-antagonist relationship here is Di vs. the weight of royal tradition. To achieve this, Larrain deploys a disorientating blend of environment set-ups, visions and tight close-ups of Diana. These are almost Son of Saul-like, the other royals moving silently around the edges of the frame with the impeccable Stewart given centre stage for her exquisite portrayal of a Diana of ticks, breathlessness and wide, wild eyes. She is at the end of her rope of pearls, hounded by both duty and Jonny Greenwood’s queasy score, which fuses anxiety-jazz with monolithic string sequences. Her visions, impressionistic windows into her desperate thought processes are beautifully done. Anne Boleyn remains a presence throughout – her fate a literal element in many scenes.

A sign of the focus of this film is the fact that Prince Charles doesn’t have any dialogue with his wife until over an hour into the film. It’s a key moment when it comes. A vast blood red-clothed snooker table stands between them throughout, its slate as weighty and immovable as the situation.

It would be easy for writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Taboo) to have dialled up a Stepford Wives treatment for the other royals – evil-doers intent on crushing the free will of a natural spirit, but he avoids this. The others just know what the score is. They are not people, they are just national ‘currency’. The Queen and Charles have sympathy for Diana, but seem also resigned to the fact that she will not survive for much longer. The other major royals say nothing, their muteness a deafening complicity.

This air of relinquished surrender extends to the Sandringham staff, who almost universally love the princess that they all know is doomed. Nothing can be done. Sean Harris (Mission Impossible, Possum) is excellent as army corps head chef Darren McGrady, trying to find the words to help “Diana” (rather than “your royal highness”) acclimatise, but knowing in his eyes that she never will.

The movie is not a tapestry of unremitting bleakness. The scenes of natural affection between Diana and her sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry) are joyous relief, and one imaginary montage at Diana’s lowest moment is breathtakingly beautiful. A trip through what might have been, in the same vein as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood showed the day that Sharon Tate should have had. Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) is wonderful as Di’s only genuine friend and personal dresser.

Towards the end, oxygen rushes through the stultification as Christmas passes, but with the weight of known history in every audience member’s memory, the approaching tragedy she will endure in Paris six years later coats the post-credits horizon all the more poignantly.

Spencer is the monarchy film we never knew we needed. It is a dazzlingly creative take on the last days of a royal marriage. Its creative freedoms will horrify many a royal watcher, but I bloody loved it.

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