What would have been Princess Diana’s 60th birthday came and went this summer, marked by a solemn new statue in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace in London, showing her with three generically grateful children; this statue effectively superseded the one of Diana with Dodi Fayed in Harrods department store, which was taken down in 2018. But maybe that new bronze image will itself be superseded by the arthouse-bizarro Diana promoted in Spencer, an entertaining, if overwrought, overpraised and slightly obtuse movie, an ironised fantasy opera without music. It is about Diana having a “crack-up” over one stifling Windsor Christmas at Sandringham in 1991, with which screenwriter Steven Knight appears to have transcribed a dream he once had after eating his bodyweight in brie. The director is the Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín, and it features an intrusive score by Jonny Greenwood, deafeningly cranking up the dysfunction.
Diana is cleverly impersonated by Kristen Stewart, who is particularly good at shoulder-shrugging convulsions of misery and protest – although this big-screen awards-season performance is not as good as Emma Corrin’s relaxed and sympathetic portrayal in TV’s The Crown. However, Stewart does get the biggest laugh of the year when Diana irritably dismisses a maid to be alone: “I want to masturbate …”
As in Larraín’s 2016 film, Jackie, about Jackie Kennedy’s trauma after the JFK assassination, this features quite a bit of Diana wandering stricken through corridors, although Jackie had just been showered in her dead husband’s blood. To approximate something like that motivation, this film conspicuously exaggerates Diana’s first-world problems with black-comic stylings, fictional flourishes and some beautiful images. The nightmarish absurdity of what Diana had to endure and her consequent unhappiness create something that looks as if it has been co-directed by former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and Dario Argento. The film maybe concedes a little drama-queen-of-hearts entitlement on Diana’s part, but of course we are supposed to be absolutely on her side, with flinch-making scenes of self-harm and bulimia.
Diana has showed up to Sandringham alone, casually driving herself in her open-topped sports car, committing an unpardonable error of taste in arriving after the Queen (Stella Gonet). She is already semi-estranged from Charles (Jack Farthing), who snaps meanly at her over one of the interminable meals, and Diana is, moreover, menaced by a fictional glowering flunkey, Major Gregory (Timothy Spall). But there are friendly faces about: her boys William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), with whom Stewart has a sweet scene, playing at soldiers on parade. The fictional cook Darren (Sean Harris) is her confidant and mate, and she has her devoted fictional dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins).
What is most intolerable for Diana is having to wear the clothes picked out for her, and again Knight gives Stewart some great lines. Holding up a gown, she says to her sour-faced maid: “It doesn’t fit.” – “Have you tried it on?” – “With my mood.” Driven mad by depression and by the Firm’s callous indifference and emotional stagnancy, Diana roams the grounds at night, to the horror of the local police, and tries breaking in to her nearby childhood home.
But the film ultimately implies that her problems are down to the ghastly Windsors: away from them, driving around in her car with the boys, listening to Mike and the Mechanics on the tape-deck and having an unpretentious KFC, she could relax and be herself, a Spencer. But you could argue that the Spencers were terribly grand and messed-up as well. Another type of film, without all the Halloween gothic naivety, might have challenged this view; it might have dramatised her relationship with her mother, say, or with the boys’ nanny, “Tiggy” Legge-Bourke. This an enjoyably strange spectacle, perhaps best appreciated by taking it less seriously than its creators intended.
• Spencer is in cinemas from 5 November.