A fable ‘from a true tragedy’, declares a caption at the start of Spencer, which – with all eyes on Kristen Stewart, the screen’s latest incarnation of Princess Diana – had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last night.
The caption might equally have read ‘a tureen of purest whimsy’, from which director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight dish up the imagined goings-on at Sandringham over the three days of Christmas 1991, with the marriage between Charles and Diana ruptured beyond repair.
The tableware reference would have been apt. Spencer drips with symbolism and metaphor – like Diana’s pretty neck dripping with jewels – and food is at the heart of it.
One of the wackiest moments comes during dinner on Christmas Eve, when she tears off a pearl necklace identical to one Charles has also given to Camilla (not that the C-word is ever actually mentioned).
The enormous pearls then plop into Diana’s soup, whereupon she promptly starts scoffing them before later, naturally, throwing them up. The poor woman’s bulimia looms large in this film – and loud.
A fable ‘from a true tragedy’, declares a caption at the start of Spencer, which – with all eyes on Kristen Stewart, the screen’s latest incarnation of Princess Diana – had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last night
Her bulimia issues also featured in the Netflix series The Crown of course – although The Crown this is definitely not. But then that was clearly never the intention. Instead, Spencer is presented as a fairy tale turned on its head: the fragile beauty who loses her prince.
That said, for all its considerable dramatic licence – some of which is fanciful enough to send seasoned royal watchers puce with indignation – the film depends pretty much entirely on Stewart’s portrayal of the princess.
You only see the differences at first. But gradually, such is the Hollywood star’s expertise, all you see is Diana. It would be hard to muck up the flicked hairdo of 30 years ago but she also nails the breathy voice and Sloaney accent, as well as that curiously beguiling mixture of coyness and directness.
Where she cannot replicate Diana is in the height department; Stewart is much shorter. But then height doesn’t seem to matter to Larrain.
The Queen (Stella Gonet) looks like she’s been stuffing herself with steroids. She’s not much shorter than the Duke of Edinburgh (Richard Sammel) – who, by the way, appears to spend the entire movie as an elective mute.
Still, this is Diana’s story, and it might 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 start, when she loses her way driving herself up to Norfolk. Once she does arrive at Sandringham, she can’t open a door without bumping into stiff royal protocol.
Mostly, this is represented by the Queen Mother’s hidebound equerry Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) – one of those buttoned-up patrician Scots for whom sex is what they deliver the coal in – sent up from Clarence House to keep a stern eye on her.
Diana’s only friends within the household are the head chef (Sean Harris) and, in particular, her favourite dresser Maggie – beautifully played by Sally Hawkins with a severe page-boy haircut.
The caption might equally have read ‘a tureen of purest whimsy’, from which director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight dish up the imagined goings-on at Sandringham over the three days of Christmas 1991, with the marriage between Charles and Diana ruptured beyond repair
Of the film’s two sweetest scenes, one is when Maggie declares her own true feelings for the princess, and the other is when Diana plays a game of soldierly commands with her beloved boys.
And what, you might wonder, of Charles? Well, he is played by Jack Farthing as a cold fish straight out of the freezer, with no more decency and compassion than the same actor delivered as Poldark’s villainous George Warleggan.
The film – and by extension Diana – is extravagantly preoccupied with the parallels between her and the ill-fated 16th-century queen Anne Boleyn. In fact, Anne’s ghost (Amy Manson) accompanies Diana when she sneaks away from Sandringham to visit Park House, her now boarded-up childhood home nearby, to revel in a few wistfully happy memories.
But Charles is no Henry VIII – and never was. The crashing irony of Spencer, and perhaps its chief flaw, is that it’s meant to leave audiences feeling sorry for the princess. Even the score of plaintive and portentous strings, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, seems calculated to do that. But it might well instead deflect their sympathies towards the prince.
This misjudgement could be because Larrain, a Chilean, is himself an outsider. Certainly, to anyone who knows the English countryside, the substitution of a German schloss for Sandringham and its grounds is somewhat jarring.
On the other hand, Larrain has form in chronicling 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 experienced screenwriter.
Nevertheless, despite its enthusiastic reception in Venice and despite Stewart’s excellence in the lead role, Spencer left me with only one overwhelming sentiment: bring on the new series of The Crown.
SPENCER will open in UK cinemas later this year.