*. This movie started out being a hard sell for me, as few things interest me less than the doings of Britain’s royal family. I think they have the collective intelligence of a bag of sand, combined with about as much personality and charm as a tile drain. What’s more, I don’t think Diana Spencer did anything to raise this bar when she married into the House of Windsor. In fact, she fit right in.
*. In brief, the royals are about the most useless family of celebrities you could imagine, at least before the advent of the Kardashians. And yet Diana’s funeral drew a British television audience of over 32 million. Did people really have nothing better to do? Or did they just want to hear Elton John?
*. I begin with this bit of grousing only to let you know that I went into Spencer with low expectations. However, this usually works out well for me, as it did again here. Spencer was better than I thought it would be. At least up until the last act. But more about that in just a bit.
*. First off, this is a star vehicle. There are some capable supporting workers — Sean Harris as a somewhat disturbing head chef, Sally Hawkins as a submissive dresser, Jack Farthing as a goblin-like Prince Charles, and Timothy Spall as a sour security man — but the show belongs to Kristen Stewart, who was “thrust” into the Oscar race with the release of the trailer.
*. Stewart is good. Not great, but good. But it is great casting because she works better for not being great. She mainly copies a couple of Diana’s mannerisms — in particular, canting her head to one side and speaking in a low, breathy voice that probably helped disguise a barely passable accent. What she projects is exactly what Stewart has to offer: a star quality that Diana is uncomfortable with. She seems like a model burned out from too many Vogue covers, and maybe that’s what Diana was by this point. I bought into the performance, if not the character, completely.
*. As for that character, I have to leave off any opinion on how accurate it is. I figured Diana was a mess, but didn’t see her as being this much of a drama queen. In any event, here we just have to accept her as the neurotic bird in a gilded cage, with little apparent understanding, even after the fact, of what her job (that is, her marriage) entailed.
*. As she heads for a nervous breakdown the spirit of the film takes on a horror feel. I thought director Pablo Larraín built this up well, evoking a lifestyle of luxury without any sense of comfort or well-being. Diana seems to be going full Repulsion, and we almost expect to see arms starting to reach out of the walls of Sandringham as the camera dollies behind her manic dancing walks down the hallways. Or maybe she’s about to turn a corner and be confronted by the ghost of Ann Boleyn or a couple of creepy little girls. Even Jonny Greenwood’s jazzy score doesn’t seem out of place.
*. As an aside, the camera dollies a lot. I thought Larraín maybe got a little too fond of this.
*. As another aside, one of the subtitles (not the closed captioning but a prepared subtitle) describes how “water swashes.” I didn’t think “swashes” was a word and I had to look it up. I guess the meaning here is that of a gentle splashing sound. I don’t think it has any meaningful etymology though and is just an onomatopoeic coinage.
*. Unfortunately, Larraín doesn’t stick to the royal-horror approach and Sandringham as the house that drips blood, giving in to a crazy pop turn at the end where the whole movie falls to pieces. Just when our loving, warm, and all-too human mom is about to be crushed by the cruelly medieval system of the monarchy she breaks free in a laughable moment where she snaps her necklace/collar of pearls and sends them dramatically bouncing down a flight of stairs. Try to think of something cornier than that. If you do, it might be interrupting a hunting party so that she can liberate little William and Harry and whisk them away with her to freedom. And if you want to add the cherry on top, hit the car stereo system and turn on Mike + the Mechanics so that you and the happy kids can sing along to “All I Need is Miracle.” Because whatever happened in Paris is going to stay in Paris and Hollywood wants a happy ending.
*. It’s particularly sad when a movie that looked like it was going to work crashes and burns this dramatically. What might have been a chilling psychological thriller ends as pop farce, with Stewart looking out at the city in the clever disguise of an Ontario Provincial Police ballcap. I got the impression that we were meant to be considering what Diana was feeling or thinking at this moment. Whether she thought all of it was worth it, or if, like Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather Part II, she realizes she has gained the empty bauble of a world but lost her soul. I say that’s what I think we’re meant to be wondering. But the only impression I was left with is that Diana wasn’t thinking or feeling much of anything at all, and that this was as per usual.