February 2022

Arts & Letters

The princess and the pea soup: ‘Spencer’

By Shane Danielsen
Pablo Larraín’s laboured Princess Diana biopic is a future camp classic

Here are a few of the things to which Diana is likened in the course of Spencer, Pablo Larraín’s study of the late Princess of Wales. A bug in a dish. A pheasant. Anne Boleyn. A scarecrow. A ghost. A prisoner of war. And the film, literal to a fault, takes care to illustrate each of these, either visually (game birds tiptoe across manicured lawns, dead queens materialise to offer advice) or via dialogue so darkly portentous that, after one particularly loaded exchange, my wife shouted at the screen “OH MY GOD, NOT EVERYTHING IS A METAPHOR!” (We were, it should be noted, not in a cinema at the time.)

What Spencer is not, is any sort of conventional biopic. Like Jackie, Larraín’s 2016 ode to Jacqueline Kennedy, it’s better understood as a set of variations on a theme: a web of impressions, sensations and conjecture, all woven around an attention-getting central performance. In that film it was Natalie Portman, mimicking the breathy, sing-song cadence of Jackie O’s voice to distracting effect. This time it’s Kristen Stewart, equipped with a blonde wig and some cut-glass English vowels, doing her level best to embody the People’s Princess.

The film follows Diana over the course of three tense days, as the royal family assembles at Sandringham House to celebrate Christmas. No date is given, but from the ages of William and Harry, and the breadth of their mother’s shoulder pads, it seems to be either 1990 or ’91. It opens with a shot of a dead bird lying on the road to the castle, almost but not quite being run over (crushed, do you see?) by a convoy of military vehicles. These pull up outside the main house, and a squad of soldiers emerges and takes from the vans various ammunition boxes, which, when brought to the kitchen, are found to contain not ordnance but lobsters, sausages, vegetables and pastries. Matériel for the feasts to come.

Already tempered by the appearance of a pre-title card (“A fable from a true tragedy”), expectations diminish further still with the appearance of probably my least-favourite working actor, Sean Harris, so distractingly terrible in Southcliffe and The King. This time, Mr Harris exerts himself – meaning that his dialogue is actually intelligible, for a change – to play Darren, the house’s head chef. Under a sign reading “Keep noise to a minimum. THEY CAN HEAR YOU”, he oversees a series of banquets so extravagant you’d think he was catering the Met Gala; at the end, when he notes that “there’s a lot left over”, you have to wonder just how good Darren is at his job.

Diana, meanwhile, has chosen to drive herself to Sandringham, but for some reason can’t seem to find the way, despite the fact she grew up nearby and has presumably been going there every Christmas for the past decade. In desperation, she stops into a motorway cafe to ask directions. “I have absolutely no idea where I am,” she explains. (Because she’s lost, you see. A lost soul.) She turns to the room, the diners dumbstruck by the appearance of this soignée toff. “Where am I?” she asks. But such is her eminence, no commoner dares answer. (She’s famous, yes – but so terribly, terribly alone. DO YOU GET IT?)

There are a lot of scenes like this. Theatrical, implausible. Dully hammering home a point we’ve already worked out for ourselves, or knew in advance. I was going to blame Steven Knight, Spencer’s screenwriter. But then I read his shooting script, and while by no means excellent, it’s a few degrees better than the finished film. The blame must therefore be a collective one.

Eventually Diana makes it to the estate, much to the relief of the equerry charged with her care (Timothy Spall, looking here like a Hogarth caricature). And for a while she manages to elude her husband and in-laws. Diana, in this telling, is always running late or where she’s not meant to be, constantly being reminded by various servants that “They” are waiting for her. I briefly hoped that this would be the film’s strategy: that we’d always be arriving at things just as they end, or would miss them altogether, and would therefore see the royal family only from a distance, or glimpse them in passing – remote, ceremonial figures, more liturgical than human, on their way to perform their mysterious duties. Not only would this be a far more interesting film – a study of someone truly alienated from their milieu – it would spare us the dissonance of a Charles (Jack Farthing) who bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real Prince of Wales, and a Queen (Stella Gonet) who looks more like Tubbs from The League of Gentlemen.

And this brings us to the central issue here: the question of impersonation. I have nothing but admiration for Stewart, who managed to make even the Twilight movies come alive while she was onscreen. Within the bandwidth of what she does – a kind of raw-nerved naturalism – she displays both a thrilling vivacity and a deep and complex interior life. Given the right director (as Olivier Assayas proved with Personal Shopper), she can be transfixing.

Here, though, she condenses the princess to a handful of actorly tics: a halting, gulping delivery, the stress falling in unexpected places within each line; a coquettish lowering of the head, the eyes gazing up in supplication or petulance. The result is a kind of simpering passive aggression. That Stewart is reportedly every bit as uncomfortable with fame as the woman she’s playing only adds a further layer to the performance, one more level to decode. But is it really Diana? And in a film as determinedly, unapologetically artificial as this one, does it even have to be?

To this end, Larraín shoots Sandringham like a haunted house: certain shots – of vast, empty hallways, of a deep green bathroom – are clearly meant to evoke the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. But this is nothing compared to Diana’s night-time visit to Park House, her childhood home elsewhere on the grounds of the estate, here a shuttered ruin that looks like it was abandoned in the time of the Brontës. (Except for her old dolls’ house, unaccountably still in place.)

Puzzled as to how the Crown would allow one of its assets to fall into such disrepair, I looked it up online, and found that the Queen actually donated Park House in 1983 to one of her charities, Leonard Cheshire Disability; it has since served as a hotel-residence for disabled travellers. I don’t mind a little poetic licence to my storytelling – and we were warned that this is a fable – but this seems excessive, not to say dishonest. It’s not, after all, like most viewers need to be convinced to side with Diana against the House of Windsor. “We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days,” Hilary Mantel observed in 2013, “but we do sacrifice them.”


A native of Chile, Pablo Larraín came to attention in 2008 with his second feature, Tony Manero, about a middle-aged man in late-’70s Santiago, a sullen loner whose only discernible interest lies in impersonating John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever in dance contests. To no one’s surprise, he turns out to be a violent psychopath. It premiered at Cannes, earning acclaim for both the director and his star, the great Alfredo Castro. (The anti–Sean Harris, Castro is just about my favourite working actor. I’ll happily watch anything he’s in.)

The director followed that one with something even better: 2012’s Post Mortem, again starring Castro, this time as a morgue attendant during the 1973 coup, grimly following orders and keeping his head down, even as the bodies of murdered dissidents pile up in his hospital’s hallways.

Larraín’s background, as much as his cinematic intelligence, made these films interesting. His father, Hernán Larraín, a former president of the Chilean Senate, was for a number of years also head of the Unión Demócrata Independiente, the country’s main right-wing party, which, along with the Opus Dei wing of the Catholic Church, lent its enthusiastic support to Pinochet’s dictatorship. (He’s now the country’s minister of justice and human rights.) And his mother belongs to Chile’s wealthiest family, the Mattes, long accused of building their paper-manufacturing empire through the expulsion of the Mapuche people from their traditional forests.

Young Pablo, in short, knows something about the aristocratic elite. But the closer he has come to depicting their world, the more his filmmaking has suffered. The chilly, forensic precision of those early notes from the underground (and let’s not forget El Club, his superb 2015 drama about a colony of disgraced Catholic priests) has given way, in his English-language work, to a fondness for empty spectacle and some very slack storytelling. There are many gorgeous images here – notably, a rear three-quarters shot of Stewart, a Chanel gown draped behind her like a peacock’s tail as she chunders into a toilet bowl. But there’s also a woolliness, and a moralising piety, that diminishes its heroes and villains alike.

All this, I realise, makes it sound like you should avoid Spencer. But I urge you to make the time, if only to witness a future camp classic. The Christmas Eve dinner scene alone, in which Diana’s pearl necklace falls into a bowl of gastric-looking pea soup, and she force-feeds herself the floating pearls while the ghost of Anne Boleyn gazes at her sympathetically from across the table, achieves such a perfect pitch of idiocy and insanity that it must be seen to be believed. (Likewise, her imperious command to a lady-in-waiting: “Leave me now. I want to masturbate.”) Larraín and Knight take a big swing here – few recent films have flirted so deliberately with utter ridiculousness – and more or less comprehensively miss the ball. But you’ll never be bored.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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