Dead ringer: Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana in the drama ‘Spencer’.
SPENCER ** (116 minutes) M
There’s no sense in pretending that even those with the vaguest interest in Princess Diana has been hanging to see how the much-touted Spencer would cast the much beloved ex-royal, killed in a car crash in 1997.
To go first things first, it needs to be emphatically stated how Kristen Stewart is not only a dead ringer for Di, she has captured all of her ticks, speech patterns and mannerisms, right down to the signature head tilt. It’s a pretty remarkable performance.
As for the film itself, well, it’s a bit of a slog. Set mostly at Sandringham – the Queen’s enormous holiday house which is surrounded by sprawling landscaped grounds – the fictitious story is a haughty chamber piece that plays to the sympathy-seeking image of Di as a loner with bulimia and mental issues.
Driving there alone, her visit to the royal Christmas gathering occurs at an especially fraught time: her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) has foundered; the Queen (Stella Gonet) clearly doesn’t like her; neither do any of the other royals.
Her only allies are among the staff. There’s her personal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), the Royal Chef (Sean Harris), and the ex-military household overseer (Timothy Spall), all of whom are especially sensitive to Diana’s fragile state and the fact that everybody else at the Christmas do, apart from her young sons, hate her guts.
Adding a bit of supernatural spice, Di becomes obsessed with the legend of Anne Boleyn, wife to King Henry VIII before being subject to one of the most famous beheadings in history.
Ghostly visitations from Anne (still with head, which doesn’t fully make sense) help Di cope with her emotional crisis – her depression, her deeply embedded insecurity and her bulimia, a condition that sees her disgorging immaculately prepared meals from the Royal dinner table, then raiding the Royal pantry to devour cold chicken pieces while her haters sleep.
The setting is sumptuous and there is some value in seeing how all the exacting protocols, such as wearing specific outfits for certain occasions, grated with Di’s free spirit.
Directing a screenplay by Steven Knight, Pablo Larraín can’t fully rouse the simmering tensions into a riveting drama, instead leaning heavily on the public image of Princess Di as alienated and oppressed by an Establishment too stiff and unfeeling to accommodate such a radiant spirit.
Even given Stewart’s impressive central performance (she’s in almost very frame and deserves an Oscar nod), the piece as a whole tends to run on the spot a lot as it labours her portrait as a lonely loser, with the poorly judged visions of apparitions feeling like a Stephen King add-on and bringing a tinge of silliness to an already dull film.