“Spencer”, Pablo Larraín’s Princess Diana fable, is less than the sum of its parts

IT IS HARDLY hyperbole to call the cultural fascination with Diana, Princess of Wales, cultish. Nearly a quarter of a century after her death in 1997, the stream of intrigue, betrayal, exploitation, obsession and recrimination seems in no more danger of running dry than it was during her lifetime. The past year has seen a new statue installed at Kensington Palace, her former home, an “unconditional apology” from the BBC after an independent inquiry found one of its correspondents, Martin Bashir, had used deception to secure a now legendary interview, a Broadway musical, and the release of the fourth season of “The Crown”, a Netflix series about the British royal family.

The last of these, which portrayed the meeting, marriage and incipient marital breakdown between Prince Charles and Princess Diana, garnered 24 Emmy nominations and won all seven in the drama category, the first show to do so. So “Spencer”, Pablo Larraín’s new film about the princess (born into the Spencer family in 1961), is all but guaranteed a receptive audience. It’s a shame, then, that it does not capitalise on its promise.

Mr Larraín, a Chilean director, has form depicting celebrated women at moments of personal crisis. In “Jackie” (2016), Natalie Portman put in an Oscar-nominated performance as Jacqueline Kennedy in a sensitive film about the hours and days after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. “Spencer” similarly takes place over a sharply circumscribed timeframe: from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day in 1991. Her marriage over in all but name, and relations with her in-laws strained to breaking point, Diana must nevertheless endure a royal family Christmas at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, with all the formalities, pettiness and claustrophobia this entails.

Guests are weighed as they arrive and again as they depart, to ensure they have gained at least three pounds (1.4kg), thereby demonstrating that they enjoyed themselves sufficiently. Long, cold corridors connect dark rooms stuffed with uncomfortable-looking furniture. Each family member is assigned clothes for each meal: Diana’s are all neatly labelled “P.O.W.”. Food is delivered by soldiers and cooked with regimental precision by battalions of chefs in silent kitchens. (Signs hang above them enjoining hush: “They can hear you.”) It is less a celebration than a siege in a haunted house.

All of this is anathema to Diana, played with some virtuosity by Kristen Stewart (“Twilight”, “Clouds of Sils Maria”). Frustrated, angry and humiliated by Charles’s blatant infidelity⁠—he has given her and his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, identical pearl necklaces for Christmas⁠—she rebels against her husband’s family as a teenager might. She flouts protocols and rigid timetables, arriving late or skipping meals, sending away intrusive maids with peremptory commands (“I wish to masturbate”) and opening her bedroom curtains wide despite warnings that paparazzi might be skulking on the grounds. Starved of the companionship of people she loves and trusts, she becomes increasingly paranoid and divorced from reality. She has hallucinations of Anne Boleyn, tearfully binges, then purges, food, before finally breaking into a nearby house which she grew up in, seeking to reclaim the certainties of childhood and regather her fragmenting sense of self.

There is much to admire in “Spencer”. Sets, costumes and cinematography create a thing of sumptuous beauty. The cast is strong. In addition to Ms Stewart, Jack Farthing, who plays Prince Charles; Timothy Spall, as the sinister Major Gregory; and Sean Harris, the sympathetic head chef Darren, all turn in good performances. As do the young princes⁠—played by Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry⁠—who inject some much-needed humour and are pivotal to a touching scene in which William and Harry gamely play soldiers with their mother in the small hours of Christmas morning. The film’s undoing is a lack of subtlety which verges at times on bathos. Prince Charles’s cruelty is cartoonish. The score is an overheated jangle. The budding relationship between Diana and her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) is ultimately a damp squib. There is also precious little of the princess’s fabled charisma. Instead the “people’s princess” is myopically self-engrossed, sneaking down to the kitchens to ask the head chef whether he read the article about her in Vogue and taking a stand against the Boxing Day shoot by announcing: “I’m going to take my place amongst the pheasants.” Billing itself as “a fable from a true tragedy”, in the end “Spencer” is an overwrought fantasy.

Correction (November 11th 2021): This article originally described Natalie Portman’s turn in “Jackie” as “Oscar-winning”. We ought to have said “Oscar-nominated”.

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