Pablo Larraín crafts a mesmerising portrait of a princess in distress, desperately gasping for air over a suffocating Christmas celebration.
Far from the conventional stylings of the past pictures of Diana on screen, such as 2013 flop Diana or the most recent season of The Crown, Spencer holds more in common stylistically with Stanley Kubrick’s psychological horror The Shining, and has far less time for the rest of the royal clan than its predecessors.
Over the course of Christmas Eve to Boxing Day we follow the people’s princess, played with breathless intensity by Kristen Stewart, as she tries to find some sanity in the oppressive walls of Sandringham.
Regimented conformity is everywhere, even the food is delivered by the army. Fun is only allowed when sanctioned, which is rarely. Every outfit has been pre-decided and every event comes with a million more customs to remember. And you thought Christmas with your in-laws was bad.
Her greeting at the Overlook Hotel-esque Sandrigham is hardly a warm one. Where The Overlook caused its guests to go mad in The Shining, it is the inhabitants of the house that cause problems here, from her distant and unfaithful husband to Timothy Spall’s ghoulish Major Gregory. With the longest face in the history of faces, he silently appears in the background of Diana’s weakest moments, forcing The System back on to her (“No one is above tradition”) as she tries to reclaim some sense of self.
Her individuality is a scar against the scenery, with the daunting portraits of past monarchs covering the walls looming over her, a constant reminder of the weight of the past. The past is beheaded wives and mistresses, the past is the book on Anne Boleyn that mysteriously finds its way to her chambers.
Stewart’s performance is jarring at first, her mimicry almost too on the nose when played against the unconventional biopic happening around her, yet it soon finds its rhythm, played with the unease of someone aware of their fate, lit in ghostly blue hues she is the beheaded wife already, and her only task is to find the strength to rage against that, seemingly for her children more than for herself.
With moments of genuine horror enough to make you squirm, it is the heartfelt interactions with her children that ground the film and Stewart’s performance. Only in these interactions does Jonny Greenwood’s suffocating score, which already looks a shoe-in for awards season, give you a second to catch your breath.
Unconventional and unafraid of rash and contradictory explosions of pure emotion, this is a biopic that is far more interested in the heart of its lead than the facts of history, and the world would be better for more of those.
Spencer screened at the BFI London Film Festival, and will open in UK cinemas on November 5.