This is a film that I didn’t really think would be my thing. I am not a fan of the Royal Family and I do think they should be abolished, but there is plenty of drama in the Royal Family that can be used for compelling media. Whilst I’ve not seen The Crown I’ve heard good things about it and I was intrigued to see this film after hearing that it would be directed by Pablo Larraín, given the brilliant work he did on Jackie. After seeing the film, I think that this was an excellent look at Princess Diana and Larraín the perfect person to tell this story.
The film takes place on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day at the Queen’s Sandringham estate, focusing on Princess Diana, who’s marriage to Prince Charles is in a rough period after she found out about the affair he was having with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Over the course of these three days, we see the damage that is being done to Diana’s mental health and the desire she has to live a normal life with her children, William and Harry. Now the film does not shy away from how damaging the traditions of the Royal Family can be to mental health. Right from the start, we see how the traditions trigger mental health issues with Diana and how they are exacerbated over the course of the film. In many ways, this has the tone of a horror film, which works in creating an alienating effect, demonstrating the distance that Diana has from the rest of the Royal Family. It also works in creating a historical precedent to Diana, drawing direct comparisons between Diana and Anne Boleyn, showing how damaging royal life has been to women throughout history. We also see how being royalty destroys the notion of a private life. Diana can’t go anywhere without being recognised or photographed so, even when the film is in wide open areas, there is still a stifling effect through how omnipresent the eyes of the world are. I also liked how the film has a military feel to everything. The film starts with the food for Christmas dinner being delivered to Sandringham and it feels more like the delivery of munitions than a food delivery. Right from the start, we see the ritualization and elements of intensity throughout every element of royal life, even with food.
The performances meanwhile are top notch all around. I was initially sceptical of Kristen Stewart playing Princess Diana but I was very quickly dissuaded from this notion. This is probably the best performance in Stewart’s career to date. She plays all of the aspects of Diana brilliantly, showing the pain she is feeling and the issues she has with her mental health and how they are exacerbated by the events and traditions throughout the film, showing how stifled and trapped Diana feels. She also shows the tender, loving side of Diana, with the scenes between Diana, William and Harry being really warm and nice, showing the life she wants to live. It is a very tricky performance but the work done by Stewart is exceptional and it’s clear why she is the frontrunner for Best Actress at the Oscars. The other performances are also strong, with Timothy Spall having this powerful, imposing presence, helping to highlight the disconnect with Diana and showing the power that others have in controlling Diana’s life. Sally Hawkins meanwhile turns what could have been a fairly one note character into a strong, supporting presence in Diana’s life, offering a life line to the real world and having this air of kindness needed by Diana. This air of kindness is also shown by Sean Harris, who makes it clear in his role as the head chef for the Royal Family that he wants to support Diana and provide her with what she wants and needs in the film, even if it is primarily in the form of food. There’s also good work from Jack Farthing as Prince Charles, who makes for a strong contrast with Stewart, although to say more would spoil the dynamic and power of seeing the two of them on screen.
The technical elements of the film are also very impressive. The cinematography and direction has this harsh, clinical feel, adding to the horror movie vibe of the film, working well with the production design to create this dangerous, imposing environment of Sandringham, giving the whole film a threatening air that helps the audience understand Diana’s feelings. The costume design also works in this regard, acting as a demonstration of the lack of control that Diana has in her own life, with her not being able to decide what she wants to wear, everything being decided for her and it being a severe breach of protocol when she doesn’t conform to the standards. This helps make the scenes of Diana in more comfortable and informal clothes have their own power in the sense of freedom provided. The best technical element of the film though is, without question, Jonny Greenwood’s score. I think that Greenwood is the best film composer working today. There’s a discordant feel to most of the music which helps the audience understand the headspace of Diana and works wonders in building the atmosphere of the film. It also helps in creating a sense of freedom and levity when needed, a pivotal scene near the end of the film of Diana dancing through her life showing the excellent work done in combining the performance of Stewart, the direction and cinematography, the editing and the music.
Overall, I was very impressed with Spencer. This turns what could have been a fairly formulaic look at Princess Diana in the hands of weaker talents into a dark, foreboding and tense look at the damage done to someone by tradition and the weight of expectations and the constant feeling of being watched, buoyed by a career best performance from Kristen Stewart and incredible music from Jonny Greenwood.
My Rating: 5/5