Rich and Strange: Those who tire of the legend of Princess Diana can skip ‘Spencer’

Just how sorry are we supposed to feel for Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, the focal point of Spencer?

We join the story already in progress. Diana (Kristen Stewart) has become the Odd Wife Out in the British royal family. Now she’s demonstrating her displeasure by being late for the family’s Christmas celebrations at Sandringham, one of the country getaway estates where Diana’s mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet) and Diana’s estranged husband, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), dutifully show up to tend to their traditional roles, like shooting pheasants and cheerfully gathering by the fireplace to play with electric trains. 

It’s those traditions that bring Diana to exasperated tears and cause her, in desperation, to strike up conversations with: 1) a scarecrow, and 2) the ghost of Anne Boleyn, who appears to Diana in her most self-pitying moments. Anne (Amy Manson), the unfortunate wife of 16th-century King Henry VIII, is Diana’s spiritual sorority sister—another woman discarded, and ultimately beheaded, by a randy royal who no longer required her services. Or so it would seem to nervous, brittle, grim Diana, prowling the grounds alone at night, filching snacks from the royal larder and seeking refuge in the affection of her two young sons. 

The tale of Princess Di is the ultimate argument against the “romantic” concept of royalty, which somehow persists in the present day. It must have seemed the right thing to do—in fact, the dream to end all dreams for celebrity-gossip-crazed TV watchers everywhere—for Diana to “marry up” from her already-aristocratic family to the clan of the Crown Prince himself. But we can see for ourselves—in director Pablo Larraín’s ultimately wearying melodrama, written by commercial craftsman Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Eastern Promises)—that she’s somewhat of a faulty figurehead, on call 24/7/365 to keep up appearances “for the people.”

She’s also obliged to humor her in-laws, the most awful group of ingrown, over-privileged snobs on the face of the earth. The Windsors, originally known as the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha lineage from the German dynastic House of Wettin, now abhor her for letting down the side by becoming the darling of the aggressive British press, even though it’s her husband who’s doing the cheating. No wonder Diana aches for the plain, ordinary girlfriend chit chat she shares with her devoted dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), the commonest of commoners.

All that is on one side. On the other side, it’s plain to see that Diana is nothing but a spoiled, uncomplicated twit trapped in a loveless marriage to the future King of England. In other words, she got what she asked for. Compare and contrast to Jackie, Larraín’s 2016 dramatization of the grief of Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Which lady, if any, deserves our pity and admiration? The fact that Diana herself is destined to die in an auto accident years after the film ends only undermines the irony of Larraín’s self-proclaimed “fable.” 

Larraín has made better movies before—especially Neruda, his mesmerizing portrait of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, implacable foe of everything represented by royal families and dictators. He will presumably continue to do so. Actor Stewart contributes an odd, but defensible, impersonation here. Hawkins’ Maggie, Timothy Spall’s officious lackey Major Gregory and Sean Harris’ royal chef de cuisine, however, deserve lavish praise.

The settings are especially marvelous, reportedly shot at Schlosshotel Kronberg and other glittering locations in Germany—something else for U.K. audiences to complain about, aside from the American Stewart’s performance in the role of their guardian angel. The dialogue about Queen Victoria’s skin flakes still circulating in Sandringham’s interiors, and the Major’s patient lecture to Diana about the Oath, shine an agreeable light on writer Knight. Likewise Queen Elizabeth’s “currency” speech. Whether or not we agree with such pronouncements, we suspect they accurately reflect the ideals of the privileged, in Europe and everywhere else.

In theaters now.
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