Spencer review – Kristen Stewart’s Diana impersonation is enjoyably strange
Pablo Larraín’s overwrought fantasy, set during a stifling royal Christmas in 1991, offers an arthouse-bizarro version of Diana’s story
What would have been Princess Diana’s 60th birthday came and went this summer, marked by a solemn new statue in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace in London, showing her with three generically grateful children; this statue effectively superseded the one of Diana with Dodi Fayed in Harrods department store, which was taken down in 2018. But maybe that new bronze image will itself be superseded by the arthouse-bizarro Diana promoted in Spencer, an entertaining, if overwrought, overpraised and slightly obtuse movie, an ironised fantasy opera without music. It is about Diana having a “crack-up” over one stifling Windsor Christmas at Sandringham in 1991, with which screenwriter Steven Knight appears to have transcribed a dream he once had after eating his bodyweight in brie. The director is the Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín, and it features an intrusive score by Jonny Greenwood, deafeningly cranking up the dysfunction.
Diana is cleverly impersonated by Kristen Stewart, who is particularly good at shoulder-shrugging convulsions of misery and protest – although this big-screen awards-season performance is not as good as Emma Corrin’s relaxed and sympathetic portrayal in TV’s The Crown. However, Stewart does get the biggest laugh of the year when Diana irritably dismisses a maid to be alone: “I want to masturbate …”
As in Larraín’s 2016 film, Jackie, about Jackie Kennedy’s trauma after the JFK assassination, this features quite a bit of Diana wandering stricken through corridors, although Jackie had just been showered in her dead husband’s blood. To approximate something like that motivation, this film conspicuously exaggerates Diana’s first-world problems with black-comic stylings, fictional flourishes and some beautiful images. The nightmarish absurdity of what Diana had to endure and her consequent unhappiness create something that looks as if it has been co-directed by the former editor of the Sun Kelvin MacKenzie and Dario Argento. The film maybe concedes a little drama-queen-of-hearts entitlement on Diana’s part, but of course we are supposed to be absolutely on her side, with flinch-making scenes of self-harm and bulimia.