A creaking manor, shadowy corridors, ghostly apparitions. “How many Stephen King adaptations do we really need?” I hear one reader ask. “Another Hotel Transylvania sequel?!” cries another. Fear not, horror-sceptics, for Chilean director Pablo Larraín has placed a firmly unexpected item in the Spooky Season baggage area.
But which perilous monsters does he warn us about this Halloween? Headless Horsemen perhaps? Axe-wielding clowns? Pfft, those are mere child’s play compared to this year’s most blood-curdling behemoths: the British Royal Family, of course.
Yes, hot on the heels of a billion binges of The Crown comes Spencer; yet another take on the tragic life of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart). Rather than conforming to predictable biopic formulae, however, Larraín mischievously imbues this tale with the camp excess of a gothic horror. Beginning with the subtitle, “a fable from a true tragedy,” it is clear that neither writer nor director are wedded to the truth – and the film is all the better for it.
The year is 1991. Dublin has been selected as the European Capital of Culture and Nirvana have just released “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Life is good, in other words. Not so for Diana, though, who is forced to join her famous in-laws for the Christmas festivities at Sandringham House. Running late in her sleek black Porsche, she pulls in by a deserted field and wonders aloud, “where the fuck am I?” Eventually rescued by the estate’s kindly cook (Sean Harris), she is flung headfirst into a hornet’s nest of disapproving looks and passive-aggressive tuts.
With the royals increasingly unimpressed by Diana’s free-spirited behaviour, they draft in ghoulish ex-military man, Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), to keep an ominous eye on her. As Charles (Jack Farthing) neglects her and the staff spy on her, Diana reminds herself that she only has to get through the next three days.
When her curtains are stitched up against her will in fear of the paparazzi’s prying eyes, however, the oppressive forces of monarchy and celebrity drive her to the verge of psychosis. Will her marriage and, more pertinently, Diana herself survive the trip? The label on her pre-selected clothes sums up the painful quandary – P.O.W: Princess of Wales or Prisoner of War?
With most of the royals, Charles included, pushed almost wordlessly to the side-lines, there is little doubt about where the film’s sympathies lie. Naturally, much attention will be paid to Stewart’s performance as the ‘People’s Princess’ and, as far as accents are concerned, the Californian has little problem in capturing Diana’s clipped tones.
Having said that, there is an overt layer of artifice attached which ensures that her embodiment of the role is not entirely authentic. This is not a slight on Stewart’s acting, however, but rather an acknowledgement of her cooperation with the film’s tone. As the aforementioned subtitle reveals, Larraín is not striving for the kind of mimicking realism that might be found in The Queen or The Crown. Instead, he pulls an operatic, melodramatic performance from Stewart. The entire ensemble, in fact, seem to turn in knowingly mannered performances, perhaps alluding to the performative nature of the royal’s lives. This facilitates the elevation of the film from mere maudlin biopic to high camp surrealism, with Stewart portraying Diana as a paranoid, suffocating victim of an obscenely tightly-wound institution.
As she spirals towards psychological torment, the film draws a clear parallel between Diana and another prominent historical figure who married into the ruling clan. Reading up on the life of Anne Boleyn, Diana builds a dangerous obsession with Henry VIII’s second wife which culminates in her appearing to the Princess as a ghost. Although executed boldly, Knight’s script constantly reminds us of their overlapping fates in a manner of diminishing nuance each time it is repeated.
Other instances of formal innovation find more success. Leaning into the playfulness of Northanger Abbey, the film is at its most enjoyable when Diana reads like a gothic hero, creeping down dark corridors in the hopes of escape. The most striking scene in this regard sees the Princess rip a stifling string of pearls from her neck while seated at the dinner table, with the beads plonking softly into her soup. As the rest of the party watch in appalled silence, Diana spoons each pearl into her mouth, crunching through them one by one.
Such surrealist sequences are indicative of Larraín’s desire to lampoon the royals’ formal pomposity but are, regrettably, few and far between. Consequently, the film’s second act drags as it embraces a more conventional approach. Although arguably reflecting the whiplash of emotion through which Diana suffers, the narrative feels tonally disjointed, with such playful moments leaving you wanting more.
As might now be expected of Larraín, however, there is much to admire in the film’s aesthetic lustre. Although not quite on a par with her sumptuous, painterly work on Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, cinematographer Claire Mathon beautifies sprawling gardens and claustrophobic hallways in a manner equal-parts haunting and alluring. Having previously collaborated with Paul Thomas Anderson and Lynne Ramsay, meanwhile, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood continues his productive filmic streak with an unsettling score which lurches back to the peak of the giallo movement.
The film may struggle to justify its substantial runtime but it is worth sitting through its more pedestrian beats for an unexpectedly electrifying ending (if there exists a more euphoric advertisement for KFC, then I have yet to see it). Although far from perfect, Spencer is an audacious, rebellious curio which intrigues as much as it frustrates. Larraín, you sense, feels the same could be said of his protagonist.
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