Director: Pablo Larrain (UK. Germany, USA, Chile). Year of Release: 2021
Sandringham, Christmas Eve 1991. Everyone’s there, apart from the queen of course – she’s allowed to be late. But murmurs start that “she” has not arrived yet. Cut to a sports car driven by someone with familiar bouffant hair. It can only be one person – George Michael. No sorry, its the Princess formerly known as Lady Di. She’s horribly lost, though she grew up round here. So, she goes into a nearby roadside café to ask the way.
Spencer is very fond of the “People’s Princess” narrative. She’s just like us, you know. She wants to eat at KFC, watch Les Mis, to walk on the beach and to listen to crappy MOR music in the car. The trouble is, she’s trapped in a family which is fixated on protocol and doing things by the rules. How did she end up here? How could the daughter of an Earl who grew up on a country estate ever know that this is how the rich behave?
One problem with the film (there are many problems with this film) is that the Diana who we see on the screen – rather than the Diana that director Pablo Larrain would like to present – is inconsiderate and vain. She complains about being treated badly by the Royal family, but she is mean and petty with the servants, her underlings. She has plenty to moan about, but her worries seem slightly petty, like having to wear a certain dress at a certain day and time.
At the same time, Diana is portrayed as being a victim who has absolutely no agency. Her life is made hell by the perfidious royals, but the only thing that she can do about it is silently scream and develop an eating disorder. For a film that is in thrall to Diana’s general wonderfulness, it has very little belief in her capability of independent thought or action.
Diana is left on her own to follow the stupid royal protocol. Well, nearly alone. There’s a favourite dresser, but she is sent back to London for allowing Diana to leave the window shutters open where the press could see her. And there is the Queen. In a peculiar scene, the Queen mentions to Diana that she also wears clothes that are not chosen by her dressers. It’s hard to tell what this scene is supposed to mean. It’s hard to tell what any of this is supposed to mean.
The Queen is one of the few royals who actually has a speaking part. The rest of them hover in the background, lookalikees, who have been chosen for their visual similarity to the character but are not given anything to say. And then there’s Prince Charles. Charles is given things to say, in as much as he has lines of dialogue, but none of it is of any import. And the actor playing him looks nothing like Charles.
The opening titles introduce this as “a fable from a true tragedy,” but it’s hard to tell how much of this nonsense actually happened (unfortunately my Diana expert friend who was supposed to come with me couldn’t make it because of Covid stuff). Did Diana really tell her sons that she doesn’t earn much money? Are we supposed to believe her? Are we supposed to care?
There are some scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, but unfortunately, we’re laughing at the film not with it. There are quite a few scenes when Diana is haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn. There is the scene playing a game with her boys where they address each other as soldier and officer and promise to be honest. These scenes are both sentimental and batshit crazy. They have little relationship with anything that anyone would actually do in real life.
And then there are the clumsy animal metaphors which are flung around as if they contain some profound meaning. Early on, Diana talks about pheasants being beautiful and stupid, before mentioning a recent interview and giving a huge stage wink. Later, the Queen Mother’s equerry (Timothy Spall, slumming it) tells an elaborate and hammy story about a wild stallion that couldn’t be controlled so had to be put down.
Do you get it? In case you don’t, Diana asks, very early on, “Do you think they’ll kill me?” She means it metaphorically, but – nudge, nudge, you know? Still, at least this provides some sort of plot development, however crude. For most of the time, nothing happens, and it happens verrrry slowly. Apparently the film lasts less than 2 hours, but it felt much longer. And it’s full of false endings when you think “thank God that’s over”, and then it just goes on. And on.
Most critics seem to have seen something in Spencer that I haven’t and intrigued to know what, I looked at a few reviews. Nothing enlightening, but I did enjoy this below the line comment: “This movie would be a thousand times better if at the halfway point it was revealed that Di has telekinetic powers and she goes on a killing rampage throughout Sandringham, crushing people with armoires and ripping Charles limb from limb with her thoughts.”
Now that’s a film that I’d pay to see.