Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins. Directed by Pablo Larraín.
Sometimes you just need an easy fix; you need to access something with minimal effort. For an easy Oscar, it’s the royals. Play a royal, make a film about a royal and it’s nominations/awards galore. Don’t believe me? Judi Dench gave what is essentially a glorified cameo to Shakespeare in Love (a total of eight minutes of screen time), and wound up with an Oscar.
Helen Mirren, Colin Firth, and a host of others can all attest to the wins/nominations that come from playing royals, and it’s true of television too. Pablo Lorrain doesn’t so much make biopics as he makes fantasias based on real people. Here we’re told the following film is a “fable based on a true tragedy”. We follow Diana, Princess of Wales over Christmas as she tries to grapple with her desire to be a good mother and the ever-present stare of royal protocol.
Kristen Stewart is getting all the plaudits for her turn as Diana, and it’s not hard to see why. She has the mannerisms and voice cadence right in a way that few others have, despite not going full hog for the hair she manages to suggest the figure rather than become the figure. Her performance and the feel that this is all her paranoid thoughts is quite interesting and she commits to the in-your-face style that the film is going for. Sean Harris, similarly, as the stern but ultimately human head chef is very good. All too often Harris is cast in roles that allow him to play up his slender frame and harsh voice, but here he’s a much more sympathetic person. Coupled with a small role from Sally Hawkins there is the potential for a portrait of someone of the upstairs who really belongs to the downstairs.
But the film is far too self-conscious to ever go nuts. Much like Jackie, shining a light on a woman in the shadow of her powerful husband, his intense family, and his numerous affairs is an interesting concept. Jackie Kennedy and Diana have points of mutual crossover. Even so the film never fully commits to either idea – is she paranoid, or is this a grand gaslighting scheme by the royals. The institution of the Royal family isn’t played for the incestuous monstrosity it is but rather a settlement of OCD aliens that have to stick to a schedule lest disaster occur.
None of them look like the royals, perhaps if you wrapped a plastic bag around your head to the point of passing out and then took it off you might mistake the skinny Alan Bennett-look alike for Charles. Certainly even with the most kind hearted mind you’d say that the kids look like Harry and William. One might argue it doesn’t matter, only Diana is one of the most recognisable women of the last fifty years, and the Royals are the last big dynasty around. They’re globally known, their image everywhere. The film has the utmost sympathy for Diana and the hellish prison she finds herself, told when to open Christmas presents, how to sit, what to wear for each part of the day. It doesn’t, however, ever actually examine how much Diana uses her stature for her own selfish ends.
Her dresser, Hawkins (sublime but underused), is sent back to her home for Christmas. Diana demands like a two year old that she be brought back – it’s Christmas, Diana. The film also threatens to become a cross between David Cronenberg and Peter Jackson. A scene in which Diana forces pea soup into her mouth with the remnants of a pearl necklace looks like a scene from Brain Dead. Similarly, her being haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn feels like it’ll have horrific moments or more emotional significance, but ultimately it’s there to say – yo the royals have affairs and their wives pay. We know. The Church of England literally exists for that reason. Many times Diana sees herself as Anne, but nothing is done with this idea.
Ultimately, the idea is solid, and Stewart is giving it her all but the film simply cannot sustain its own momentum and so the whispering conversations between people and intense tracking shots fail to register the way they should.