Just as he did with his 2017 portrait of Jackie Onassis, director Pablo Larrain fixes his gaze on another famous female partner of an important man, Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart), during a specific period of his subject’s life. In Onassis’s case, it was the period of mourning following the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy, a situation that posited the first lady as the most famous widow in the history of the Western world. Larrain’s point—that Jackie used this opportunity to not only advance the idea that JFK was one of the greatest leaders of all time despite his short time in office, but also to sell her own brand—seemed painfully reductive for a full-length feature whose main characteristic was its period-detail production design (not to mention star Natalie Portman’s bizarre mid-Atlantic accent).
Spencer is similarly reductive in that the period depicted—Christmas 1992, shortly before the announcement that Princess Diana would separate from Prince Charles (Jack Farthing)—was chosen to highlight Diana’s struggles with mental illness, an aspect of this already over-studied history that was mostly absent from Ed Perkins’ recent documentary, The Princess. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the two movies complement each other. Perkins was concerned with the media’s obsession with Diana, while Larrain takes such obsession with famous women for granted and, again, tries to analyze his subject’s temperament through a study of her behavior, which he often fabricates in ways that seem beholden to that obsessive coverage. It’s not so much that he projects a revisionist biography, but rather than he highlights one aspect of the conventional narrative to the point of distortion. Right from the start we know there’s a serious problem when Diana, driving her own car, gets lost on her way to the estate where the royals will be celebrating the holidays, despite the fact that it’s where she grew up. After she arrives, she is mostly left to her own devices, since Charles had yet to show up and everybody else has already cultivated a dismissive attitude toward the troubled princess.
Larrain conjures up what very well may be the nastiest Christmas anyone has ever had to suffer through, and Diana’s own abject fear of having any contact with her in-laws and their minions—including Timothy Spall in a diverting turn as the factotum in charge of keeping the press at bay—is treated like something out of Dario Argento. The only person she halfway trusts is her maid, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), whose idiosyncrasies are all bound up in her loyalty to the one person in the household who, it’s implied, doesn’t deserve to be there. Though Diana’s demise is five years away, the viewer can see doom at every turn from one hallway to another in this massive manor house. Larrain’s stylistic choices almost overwhelm Diana’s story. It’s as if the whole idea of this monarchy was dictated by the Devil. Had Roman Polanski directed the screenplay it couldn’t have been more oppressive.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
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photo (c) 2021 Komplizen Spencer GmbH & Spencer Productions Limited