After successfully tackling the inner lives of two major twentieth-century figures in previous films (Jackie and Neruda), Pablo Larraìn has aimed his sights on a third beloved icon: Princess Diana. While the film lacks the finesse and the magical realism of the previous works, it is nonetheless fascinating and thoroughly watchable.
Kristen Stewart plays Diana and she has perfected that famous coy glance and the playfulness that always lurked under the awkward, shy surface. And her upper-crust accent is just fine too, with one of her opening lines being: ‘Where the fuck am I?’ as she races in her Porsche through the English countryside.
So where the fuck is she? Larraìn, and screenwriter Steven Knight, have set the action in Sandringham (though the film was actually made in Germany) over Christmas weekend, 1991. Diana is teetering on the brink, ready to make a bolt for it before she completely falls off the rails. She is very much the outsider: always late, always getting told off, never complying with the rules of the house, while the Royal family witnesses her misdemeanours and suffers her foibles in silent rebuke. Only Charles (played by the highly convincing Jack Farthing) tells her off and explains that she should think of herself as two people – the one on public display and the private one. Yet Diana can’t stand the subterfuge, the hiding, the hypocrisy.
The more Diana is coerced into following orders, from the outfits she wears to drawing her curtains, the more she rails against the family she has married into. With her large eyes and long slender legs, she is like a doe that has accidentally entered the palace and, terrified, is desperately seeking a way out as the hunters approach.
Yet it is not all doom and gloom for the hunted and haunted princess. There are a few scenes of her and her children, which depict their loving relationship and true intimacy, but also her reliance on them to anchor her to reality. Then there are the friendships with the staff, most notably the head chef Darren (a likable Sean Harris) and her dresser Maggie (an unconvincing Sally Hawkins), both of whom are her trusted confidantes. While these friendships are unlikely to have any basis in reality, they represent the affection that the ordinary people had for Diana and act as a counterpoint the frostiness and lack of affection from her in-laws. Another servant is Major Gregory (Timothy Spall): he is very much not on Diana’s side but reminds her of her duty to crown and country as he tries to keep her in line.
This film lacks Larraìn’s inventiveness as Steven Knight’s script is sometimes too obvious – the repetition of themes (currency, hunting) and the comparisons with Anne Boleyn, whom Diana sees in her dreams. I was expecting a more unconventional depiction of this weekend in Diana’s life yet it seems that Larraìn has decided to play it fairly safe. But it looks wonderful: the bleached wintery landscapes and the daunting palace could be from a particularly grim fairy tale. Sandringham’s walls have ears: there is even a sign in the kitchen reminding servants that the people upstairs can hear everything. No secrets are safe and nobody can hide. Then there is Diana’s old family home that lies adjacent to Sandringham: a dilapidated and semi-derelict shell, it nevertheless contains her happy childhood memories and is the catalyst for inspiring her great escape.
Did any of this really happen? Almost definitely not. After The Crown, do we need another portrayal of Diana and the Royal Family? Not really. However, Larraìn has provided us with an entertaining and intelligent story while Kristen Stewart makes a convincing and sympathetic Diana.