Departing from making movies in his native tongue, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín directed his English-language debut five years ago with a Jackie Kennedy biopic, zoning in on the mournful days following the assassination of her husband, JFK. His latest feature Spencer follows another woman married into a hugely powerful family, with the beloved Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) taking centre stage during a festive break with the Royals. Arriving at Sandringham Estate on Christmas Eve to a frosty reception from eagle-eyed equerry Alistair Gray (Timothy Spall) but greeted with warmth by her dresser and confidante Maggie (Sally Hawkins), she must face up to her failing marriage whilst struggling with an eating disorder.
Very different to the usual biographical narratives and a far cry from the formal tone of Netflix’s glossy series The Crown, this is a daring arthouse exercise in loneliness as Larraín isolates his suffering protagonist from the friends and foes around her. Imprisoned in the lavish high-ceilinged surroundings, we are flies on the wall as her state of mind deteriorates, spiralling into fantasy as she tries to contextualise her diminishing significance. Larraín’s story pivots from period drama into psychological thriller with sequences coated in a chalky pastel sheen as Mathon’s camera drowns Diana in the indulgences she is rebelling against. Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score perfectly decorates the descent into despair and though metaphors of impending death and comparisons to Anne Boleyn in the script penned by Steven Knight are a little on the nose, this is an exquisitely crafted depiction of grief for the privacy of the life that she gave up.
Much was made of the unorthodox casting of Kristen Stewart, and whether indie cinema’s number-one-whatever-girl could go from hipster to high society for the part. After a ropey start in a clunkily written café scene, she gradually disappears into the role, turning in a stunning performance. For big sections of the film, she is alone with her dark thoughts and is a captivating presence throughout. Moments with youngsters Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry who play William and Harry respectively provide glimpses of tenderness, an intimate escape from the terror to a loving, and amusingly captured, relationship between a mother and her sons. Amongst her dwindling allies, Sean Harris is brilliant as the firm’s head chef Darren McGrady. It’s a rare portrayal of humanity from an actor who usually excels in evil.
As films set on muddy country retreats go, Pablo Larraín’s Spencer has more in common with The Shining than The Princess Bride and it’s all the better for it. Suspenseful, experimental, and a hell of a lot funnier than you might expect, it’s a nightmarish vision of a fairytale gone horribly awry.