- Emma Simmonds
- 7 October 2021
LFF 2021: Kristen Stewart gives us a full-blooded and fed-up Diana in this sublime biopic
From the moment she batted her lashes in the trailer, Kristen Stewart silenced any doubters and all but confirmed that this take on the Princess of Wales would be a Crown-style triumph rather than a Diana-level disaster. We shouldn't be surprised, not only is Stewart a terrific actress, but Spencer is helmed by the masterful Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (Ema, No, Tony Manero) and makes a great companion piece to his equivalently excellent and leftfield portrait of Jackie Kennedy, 2016's Jackie.
Branded at the outset a 'fable from a true tragedy', Spencer very much paints Diana as the victim of a pitiless, unyielding institution, which she is absolutely done with as the film opens. This Diana has long since stopped caring what any of the royals think of her as she arrives at Sandringham for the Christmas festivities – portrayed as a thoroughly joyless and precision-managed affair. As she struggles not to suffocate over three torturous days, Diana seeks solace in the company of her kids (played by Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry), alongside the sympathetic and more straight-talking staff, most notably Sean Harris's head chef Darren, and her beloved dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins).
With the exception of Charles, played by Jack Farthing, and a few lines for the Queen (Stella Gonet), the rest of the royals are merely a throng of blind obedience and admonishing looks. Instead, overseeing proceedings as an imperious, scandal-repelling enforcer drafted in from the Queen Mother's estate is Timothy Spall as Major Alistair Gregory, who makes quite the adversary.
Naomi Watts's portrayal of Diana in the 2013 film of the same name painted her as a borderline simpleton; Stewart gives us a woman on the edge, but with a little bit of the devil in her as she finds the strength to do battle in her darkest hour. Her Diana-evoking affectations (the tilted head, the doe eyes) give way to a full-blooded turn; she plays a woman squirming in her own skin, unable to keep down food and lashing out with impotent rage, and manages to pull off the plaintive and soul-searching pronouncements in Steven Knight's intelligent script.
The actress is extremely well-supported across the board, with the film sparing a little sympathy for Charles, who is portrayed by Farthing as resentful, weak and disgusted, yet also capable of guilt. Spencer is stunningly shot and expressively scored and there are lots of lovely touches: the family's lack of warmth extends to their stingy approach to central heating, and there are flights of fantasy, including wild, melodramatic visions of Anne Boleyn, while Diana's visit to a roadside café full of bewildered punters rubs up against the military operation that puts food on the Queen's table. It might be speculation but there's an overarching sense of authenticity, some satirical bite, and never has a royal retreat seemed more like a prison.
Available to watch on Thursday 7, Friday 8 and Sunday 17 October as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. In cinemas from Friday 5 November.