If you have even the smallest dislike of the grotesquely redundant and regressive institution that is the British monarchy, one of the greatest pleasures of the shamelessly pleasurable, archly self-aware, high camp masterpiece that is Pablo Larraín‘s “Spencer,” is envisioning how it will play to the still-living people it glancingly portrays. Imagine the creasing of Royal brows sending Royal spectacles cascading down Royal noses! Picture the Royal flushes creeping up Royal necks! Just think of the aghast unstiffening of Their various Highnesses’ upper lips and Her Majesty’s corgis whimpering and putting their stumpy little paws over their eyes. Entirely to its credit, “Spencer” is nothing like real history, and its Diana can certainly not be proven to be anything like the real Diana, whoever that poor woman was. But that won’t stop the Di-hards and the defensive monarchists out there being royally pissed off by this immensely cinematic, gloriously melodramatic portrait of the disintegration and despair of celebrity, and by an approach that dares to have the People’s Princess utter, in a beautifully clipped and heightened imitation of Diana Spencer’s breathy, patrician voice, lines like “Leave me now. I want to masturbate.”
Like with “Jackie” and Natalie Portman – only here even more so – Larraín’s greatest coup, in a film so full of little coups it amounts to an armed insurgency against the staid traditions of the biopic, is his lead actress. Kristen Stewart, to whose casting a very vocal and very boring minority of self-appointed keepers of the Diana flame loudly objected, gives a performance that is simultaneously completely invested in the mythos of Diana and vitally distant from it. And as possibly the only actor at work right now whose own image is also such a paradoxical mixture of radiance and reticence – there is no one who so strongly projects shyness as Stewart – to have her play the most famous person ever to have so famously hated fame, is already genius-level gamesmanship. Add to that the shooting style by which Claire Mathon‘s gorgeous close-up camerawork often pushes in even closer, with sympathy so solicitous it becomes intrusive, and you have in almost any of the single shots of Stewart-as-Diana a whole encyclopedia of information about the way image is constructed, the way the world’s most looked-at women are observed as though owned by the people doing the looking. No wonder those luminous, lush full-facial shots are always lit to show the glisten of her unshed tears, as though her eyes were full of chandeliers and paparazzi flashbulbs.
Set over an astonishingly miserable three-day Christmas Diana spent at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate when Charles’ affair with Camilla was known to her but before she’d summoned the resolve to separate from him and the resources to escape the clutches of the royal machine, “Spencer” opens on one of Larraín’s favorite views: a misty half-lit lawn at dawn. Trundling along the laneway is a military convoy delivering what look to be crateloads of surface-to-air missiles but actually, turn out to be boxes full of organic vegetables and the ingredients for pastries and puddings. These have been brought in from Highgrove, which is traditionally the family residence of the Prince of Wales, but a place that Diana pointedly never means when she uses the loaded word “home.” Already now, the focus of Larraín’s film is clear: Just as he is less interested in publishing the legend than exposing the means of its construction and deconstruction, he is almost perversely uninterested in the actual pageantry of palace life. Rather, he’s fascinated by the preparation of it and the absurd circumstances of secrecy and security under which the royal retinue has to operate at all times. In the kitchens, run like a military operation by head chef Darren (a superb Sean Harris), one of Diana’s few allies, a sign hangs overhead that reads, laid out in the “Keep Calm and Carry On” school of nostalgist British graphic design: “Keep Noise To A Minimum. They Can Hear You.”
Diana is late and lost. She slipped her security detail and decided to drive there by herself in the sporty open-top Porsche that is its own oblique commentary; her in-laws arrive in Land Rovers and Rolls Royces. En route, she finds herself not far from her own childhood home, which is only a short way from Sandringham but has been boarded up and condemned as derelict for years. On a scarecrow in a field, she spots a jacket that she is convinced belonged to her father, and, heels sinking into the mud, she treks across the field and takes it. Later, she will talk to it in one of her confessional, non-sequitur-ridden monologues (Steven Knight’s script contrives a variety of such ways, including nighttime visitations by the ghost of Anne Boleyn, to get this lonely, isolated woman to speak aloud some of the thoughts we see flitting across her perfect, pinkly lipglossed, unhappy face). And it’s strangely appropriate that this moldering old jacket should be one her first confessors: In “Spencer,” not a lot actually happens, but clothes (evocatively designed by Jaqueline Durran) – the choosing of them, the dressing in them, the accessorizing of them, what they represent – are treated like plot twists.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that the only other friend Diana seems to have in this forbidding cavernous place is her dresser Maggie (a lovely, warm Sally Hawkins). Again, as in “Jackie,” where Greta Gerwig played a somewhat analogous role, Larraín is acutely aware of the freeing potential of female friendships for women in otherwise fraught and trapped circumstances, even if the relationship is between employer and employee, or here, princess and commoner. But outside of Maggie and Diana’s children William and Harry (William, especially, comes out of “Spencer” rather well; a sweet kid highly sensitive to his loving mother’s fragile state), Diana seems utterly alone. Especially when being spied on by a phalanx of servants headed by Timothy Spall‘s equerry, whose disdain for Diana’s flouting of the rules and traditions of royalty could be measured, like the distance between the tip of his nose and his upper lip, in acres. Under his black watch, Diana is forever glimpsed entering rooms after everyone else has left, or creeping into the larder to gorge late at night, or leaning blearily on the toilet bowl into which she has just made herself vomit, her fairytale-sparkly tulle gown fanned out heartbreakingly around her on the bathroom floor.
These three days mark a small move toward liberation for Diana, but it is all internal. She has only one interaction with the Queen – which is remarkable for its directness and surprising lack of animosity – and only a couple more with her estranged husband (Jack Farthing). During one of these, he remonstrates with her that he is the less reported-on of the pair because “I keep my curtains drawn” – an ironic comment for someone who will soon be recorded longing to be another woman’s tampon in a phone call. But it’s also true that Charles never was the subject of the kind of scrutiny that would cost his wife so dearly, and also true that even once he’s gone, Charles will never get a biopic like “Spencer,” if biopic it is at all.
Under the utterly gorgeous melodies of Jonny Greenwood‘s absolutely-should-be-Oscar-winning score (between this and Jane Campion‘s “The Power of the Dog,” Greenwood is already inarguably the musical MVP of Venice), Diana cries and fights and fails and breaks, she beats her hands against the walls of her confinement, and tears open the sewn-shut curtains of her chamber like a 1950s melodrama heroine observed through the dazzlingly shattered prism of modern celebrity obsession. “Will they kill me?” she asks jokingly at one point, and then later, less jokily and with more doom in her velvety voice, “It’s set. It’s as if everything has already happened.” This is the shamelessness of Larraín’s approach – he feels no compunction about reversing the tragedy of Diana’s premature death into her living present, and still has managed to make a defiantly un-commercial, weird, witty, peculiarly personal statement about perhaps the most bankably well-known tragic woman of the 20th century. All the right people are going to hate “Spencer.” That’s just how good it is. [A]