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Battle Royal: Diana squares off against the Windsors in Spencer

Kristen Stewart disappears beneath hair and makeup and plummy accent and a plethora of real and imagined costume changes

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We’re 51 minutes into this cracking good tale before the Princess of Wales exchanges words with anyone who isn’t a servant, a commoner or her two sons. I was starting to think director Pablo Larraín would handle the entire movie in this way, and what an interesting choice that would make!

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But the film is already full of fascinating choices. Sly touches of humour, like the way the Queen’s motorcade disgorges their royal highnesses from one vehicle, while the identical Rolls-Royce behind it ejects a sextet of well-fed Corgis. A histrionic score, seemingly lifted from a horror film, and at one point revealed as being played in scene by a string quartet. Ghosts.

Then there is Kristen Stewart, disappearing beneath hair and makeup and plummy accent and a plethora of real and imagined costume changes, mimicking the way Diana – a good five inches taller than Stewart’s five-foot-five – could seem to fold up like royal origami, head tilted, shoulders slouched, as though trying to fit inside a frame only she could see.

Larraín, working from an imaginative screenplay by Steven Knight, fills his own frame with a story that is not quite biographical truth, neither wholly invented. But that is part of its genius. The story, set during Christmas 1991 at the royals’ Sandringham estate north of London, announces itself as “a fable from a true tragedy” in the opening scene, signaling that anything could happen. When Diana and Charles are arguing in the billiards room over their respective affairs, I half expected her to take the snooker ball she was fidgeting with and hurl it across the table at her husband, turning Spencer into Clue .

Half expected and half hoped. As Prince Charles, Jack Farthing looks positively ghoulish in his handful of scenes, while Stella Gonet as Queen Elizabeth II seems to radiate a kind of quiet malevolence, like a bejeweled Bond villain. Any general goodwill you may feel toward the royal family from four seasons of The Crown will likely leave you at some point during Spencer ’s two hours.

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There is no future, and the past and present are the same thing

Things are not much better below stairs, with the house being run by Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), equerry to the Queen Mother and a former officer in the infantry battalion known as the Black Watch. Ramrod straight and sporting a stiff upper lip I’ve seen matched only in cases of rigor mortis, he warns the Princess to please keep her curtains closed while changing.

When she accuses him of putting the “watch” in Black Watch, his calm riposte is: “I watch to make sure others do not see.” And then proceeds to lead a running battle to keep her away from prying photographers, which culminates in the offending curtains being briefly sewn shut until the Princess gets her hands on a pair of wire cutters.

Maj. Gregory also demands a royal weigh-in – apparently a tradition started by Queen Victoria’s husband in 1847, in which members of the household are expected to leave the estate with at least three extra pounds of holiday jollity in their tummies. Diana, whose struggles with bulimia were an open secret at the time, recoils. Speaking about long-held traditions, she tells sons William and Harry, then aged 9 and 7, that the royals exist in one tense: “There is no future, and the past and present are the same thing.”

Sally Hawkins plays Maggie, a sympathetic dresser, in Spencer.
Sally Hawkins plays Maggie, a sympathetic dresser, in Spencer.

Not everyone is against her, mind. Darren (Sean Harris) seems to be an old friend. He runs the kitchen, working beneath a sign that reads: “Keep noise to a minimum. They can hear you.” It feels like a version of Keep Calm and Carry On, and also sets up the notion that Diana was being constantly observed by everyone, all the time. Even royals are royal watchers in this story.

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Her other ally is her dresser Maggie, played by Sally Hawkins, radiating real warmth and even love. This is something Diana, for all the international adoration bestowed upon her, had in short supply in her personal life.

And personal life is what Larraín is presenting here. Diana Frances Spencer, who would have turned 60 last summer had she not been cut down on an August day in 1997 in a Paris underpass, was no stranger to British nobility – she grew up a literal stone’s throw away from the Sandringham estate where the film’s action takes place – but she was very much an outsider to royal mores.

Being more than 12 years younger than her Baby Boomer husband put her on the cusp of Gen X, while her status as a fashion icon and her extensive, hands-on charity work separated them even further from one another. Her outspokenness set the stage for that of her children. Spencer goes so far as to suggest a touch of madness, and asks its viewers to consider whether they wouldn’t feel likewise, living that life.

Spencer opens Nov. 5 in cinemas.

5 stars out of 5

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