She was known across the world as Diana, the Princess of Wales. One of the most beloved figures to have ever been a part of the British Royal Family. Yet, as we all know, her story is one that ultimately ended in devastating circumstances. As the words “A fable from a true tragedy” flash up on the screen at the start of Spencer, the latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, he is letting the audience know straight away that this is definitely not your standard biopic.
Taking place over several days during a Christmas at Sandringham in the 1990s, the marriage between Diana (Kristen Stewart) and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) has now grown extremely cold and distant. It has got to the point where their marriage is unequivocally heading for divorce. Yet with it being Christmas, it’s a time of year, especially within the Royal Family, for tradition. Despite her unquestionable love for her two sons, Diana has become deeply unhappy with her life within the institution of the British Monarchy. She wants nothing to do with the festivities that’s taking place around her, and is solely focused on being there as a mother for her sons. Unfortunately for her, she has no choice, because “no one is above tradition”. On top of which, the eyes of the country, and indeed the world, are on her.
The challenge of playing one of the most recognisable faces in the history of the British Royal Family is an almighty challenge for any actor to face. It is to Kristen Stewart’s enormous credit that she gives one of the best performances of her career. It’s always the sign of a brilliant performance when an actor completely disappears into the role, and this most certainly applies here. From the hair and makeup, to Jacqueline Durran’s incredible costumes, to her incredibly on point Received Pronunciation accent. All of the above make it easy to forget that this is in fact Stewart, and not Lady Di herself, that you see on screen. It is breath-taking work that demands Stewart be in the awards conversation. While Diana is understandably much of the film’s focus, there’s strong support from the supporting cast. Though, due to her isolation from the Royals, these mainly consist of the staff working at Sandringham, from Sally Hawkins as Diana’s dresser Maggie, to Sean Harris’s head chef, to Timothy Spall as Major Alistair Gregory, one of the more senior household staff member who is there to prevent intrusion from the press.
As Diana’s story is one that has been well told in countless media, the decision by Larraín, and screenwriter Steven Knight, to narrow their focus to several days proves to be a wise decision. It goes without saying that the script takes creative liberties with the events it depicts, but it chooses to portray them in a manner that, bar one or two lapses, is consistently compelling. There is a point where the film dabbles in elements of a ghost/horror story, where Diana draws parallels between herself and another well-known figure from the British Royal Family. It is certainly an unusual plot device, but it serves its purpose as it portrays to the audience just how Diana would have been feeling at this particular moment in her life. By adopting this plot device, it effectively blurs the line between fantasy and reality. The excellent score from Jonny Greenwood is a tad overpowering at times, yet like Claire Mathon’s cinematography, both have a very suitably very melancholic feel to them.
It is telling that even after her exit from the Monarchy, Diana’s association with the institution is one that continued to haunt her until her very last day. At a time when in the 21st century, we have seen people from within the institution, who have publicly spoken out and taken on the monarchy, and the never-ending circle of press attention that comes with being a part of such an institution. It is easy to make the connection between the two. Hence, it’s hard to not see Diana as a victim who was trapped in the clutches of an institution where any freedom that she had was stripped away. An institution should have protected her, but ultimately failed to do so. The events that Larraín depict on screen may not have been entirely what happened, However, in in the end, it is hard to not see the life of Lady Diana Frances Spencer as a truly heart-breaking tragedy.
Spencer is playing at the BFI London Film Festival
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