It would be wrong to describe this jittery and jazzy biopic about Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) as dark. It would be truer to say that the film is colourful. The vivid scene in which our heroine lacerates herself with a wire-cutter is one you’ll never forget.
Christmas. Sandringham. 1991. Diana is looking for a way out of her marriage. Or maybe her life. Whether hallucinating that she’s chomping on pearls, seeing the ghost of Anne Boleyn, bingeing in the larder or vomiting over the loo, she is neither numb nor dumb, just aware that her husband’s loins are elsewhere and that she’s royally screwed. Just because she’s paranoid, doesn’t mean The Firm isn’t out to get her.
All credit to LA-born Stewart, whose subtle and uncannily precise take on the English icon is guaranteed to earn her an Oscar nomination. Her accent doesn’t wobble, nor do millennial mannerisms creep into the mix. Above all, the 31-year-old actress is funny, delivering earthy gags, or sometimes just widening her eyes, in a way that makes you see the absurdity of Diana’s hellish situation.
It’s been said the Twilight star, once the partner of Robert Pattinson, is a good fit for the role because she’s a tabloid-hounded celeb who knows what it’s like to be part of a fairytale love affair that founders. Hah! If being famous made it easy to portray the famous, it would have been fun to watch Nicole Kidman in Grace of Monaco.
Anyway, this is by no means a one-woman show. Chilean director Pablo Larraín and scriptwriter Steven Knight allow many other actors to shine, including Timothy Spall as icily unctuous Equerry Major Gregory, Jack Nielen as a sweetly anxious young William and – above all – Sally Hawkins as Diana’s dresser, Maggie. An intimate conversation between Di and Maggie on a beach is so shocking, tender and naturalistic you half-wonder if it was improvised. Is it greedy to hope that Hawkins gets a Best Supporting Actress nod for this turn?
Spencer doesn’t promote the British royal family or in any way suggest that we’re lucky to have them. It’s the polar opposite of Stephen Frears’ The Queen. That said, part of what makes Spencer so gripping is that you understand why Diana’s in-laws loathe her. The gun-toting Queen (Stella Gonet), who, aptly, resembles the terrifying matriarch played by Catherine Keener in horror classic Get Out, has a brutally honest kind of charm, while Charles (Jack Farthing) often appears reasonable. The film acknowledges that Diana can be a flaky and coy diva. Such “warts” are what make this portrait valuable. It doesn’t whitewash anyone.
A female-centric study of power and corruption, Spencer proves every bit as rousing, and wrenching, as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. In case you’re wondering, Larraín ends things on a happy note. I sobbed the whole way home.
115 mins, cert 15.At the LFF on October 7 and 8, and in cinemas from November 5