Written for RAF News November 2021
Christmas 1991, Sandringham is the setting for Spencer, a fabled telling of black sheep Princess Diana in a marriage beyond repair, struggling to find her place and pushed to breaking point.
The festive period is inverted here to be cold and uninviting. Family traditions appear more detached and ritualistic for the ruling class – each guest is weighed upon arrival, and once again as they leave, to prove their enjoyment in pounds. This the first of many alienating trials for Diana, who feels as though her eating disorder is being put on display.
Not simply taking liberties with the truth, but basking in the fantasy with joyous aplomb, Chilean director PabloLarraín (Jackie) sidesteps reverence and comes at an angle, skewering the subject with humour. Collaborating with writer Steven Knight (creator of Peaky Blinders) the film takes its ‘ghost story’ theme quite literally, committing so fully that it becomes enjoyably absurd. The royal residency becomes an opulent Overlook Hotel, with its roaming apparitions, long displacing halls and walk-in freezers. Food, as it turns out, will become the biggest antagonist of all, with scenes beginning below deck in the kitchen, run like a military operation with scrupulous attention to detail, and ending with the Princess on her knees beside the loo.
Fighting her own demons, Diana also has to contend with the rules of the manor, enforced by all but personified by Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) as the Queen’s menacingly watchful equerry. Treading a line between very serious and silly, it is grounded by the phenomenal performance of Kristen Stewart: endearing with her dry sense of humour, and tenderness with her children, but also amped up in terms of her unravelling.
The theme of duality is tackled head on, with Jack Farthing’s punishingly contemptuous Prince Charles explaining that there is the real person and the one for the cameras. The film then adds a third to the mix, the one behind closed doors but just as contrived.
Spencer is a delight if you’re able to take it as seriously as it takes itself – with a pinch of salt, and shavings of white truffle.