I didn’t expect much from Spencer, nor did I care too much about yet another royal drama (fictionalised or unfolding in reality). But this film surprised me, and has left me a little haunted.
Kirsten Stewart feels like an odd choice at first. She doesn’t quite fit the role, and during the first 20 minutes or so, this is exacerbated by a clunky script delivered woodenly, not just by her but a few of the other fleeting cast members. Then, slowly but surely, this awkwardness starts to do its work. The performativity of it all, the ill-fitting roles, becomes a foundation for the film’s creeping existential horror.
Yes: horror. Less of a Crown spin-off, I was at times reminded of The Favourite, albeit with all the dark humour inverted. By the end, Spencer more often invoked The Shining as a tale of one woman slowly smothered by her surroundings and the ghoulish staff who shadow her every move, whether seen or not. They become ever-present eyes and ears, some sympathetic and others far from it. Timothy Spall, for instance, who plays Major Gregory, at one point beckons the Princess inside, but she has little interest in being shooed left and right by dutiful staff. This is true throughout the film, and it is notable that most demands and requests are disembodied, spoken through walls and doors. We never know who is speaking until Major Gregory tries his best to shephard Diana inside. As a last resort, he invokes the queen. “I speak with her voice”, he says, imbuing himself with a new authority as he stands over her. The character of the queen hardly says a word when on screen, but it is nonetheless her voice heard everywhere, and it is suffocating.
The same is true of the film itself. At first, I thought, “well, the script sucks, but it’s wonderfully shot and choreographed”, but soon enough this too starts to smother too. The military pageantry, followed by everyone from armed guards to kitchen staff, becomes an imposition, like a Stepford Wives dance routine. The soundtrack, too, is inspired. In the end, it all starts to come together. Princess Di feels like a role Stewart was born to play. Her stereotypical angst and awkwardness brings an intensity to this film that I just didn’t expect, portraying Diana as someone who copes, often badly, with the pressures of her own entrapment.
Outside the film’s daring fiction, it’s been a year of all too real royal scandals, what with Prince Andrew back in the news following the Ghislane Maxwell trial. There’s also been more of The Crown and the BBC aired A Very British Scandal about the Duke and Duchess of Argyle’s scandalous divorce in 1963, telling the story of an aristocracy incapable of keeping a lid on themselves, despite their best efforts. But Spencer dramatises another tendency, that we’ve been hearing about since Megan and Harry’s Oprah interview, but have arguably never seen portrayed on our screens — the internal turmoil of those who find themselves swept up by a family that churns up those who do not come to heel.
It is hard to find much sympathy for the aristocracy, most days, but Spencer dramatises the horror of their own cloistered existence more palpably than anything else. In its tone and pacing, the film implicitly frames the royal family as a clan of weirdos and inbreds, who lure and abuse and do not take kindly to those even marginally outside their stock. It is refreshing to see them portrayed in this way — such a perspective is often left to hillbillies — but it still hits all the learned narrative points. It is truly a horror film in all but name, to the extent that Diana’s final escape, racing down country roads with her sons in the morning light, hits home with an infectious release of tension that I don’t think I’ve felt since the end of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.