By his own admission, filmmaker Pablo Larrain “became some sort of an expert” on Princess Diana while directing his new movie, Spencer. And yet he still can’t quite put his finger on this most enigmatic and beloved member of the British royal family.
“Believe me, after all this process, after making the movie, I can tell you that I don’t really know very well who she was. And that is interesting. And weird at the same time. I think that’s because of Diana’s enormous amount of mystery.”
Set across three days in December 1991, as Diana spends Christmas at Sandringham House with her husband Prince Charles and the rest of the royals, Spencer does its level best to sink inside her psyche. As the opening credits read, this is “a fable from a true tragedy” – pitching it at the polar opposite end of the Royal-watching spectrum to Netflix show The Crown, which has dramatised the modern-day Windsors so successfully.
Chilean filmmaker Larrain already has form in this area. His 2016 film Jackie – starring Oscar-nominated actress Natalie Portman – put audiences squarely inside the point of view of Jackie Kennedy directly after the assassination of her husband, president John F Kennedy.
“What I was interested in was to be able to get into the mind of someone ... it’s fascinating to me because there’s so much information around them. They both have such a unique and fascinating life. But the truth is that we know very little about them.”
In Spencer, he casts Kristen Stewart – in what surely must be one of the first sure-fire Oscar performances of the year – as Diana. One of the many reasons he chose her was that the Twilight star can be similarly inscrutable and unreadable.
“I think Kristen has that … on camera. I can play and be in a space that you can’t really determine. And so I thought that’s a good call, just to see if she would be interested. I talked to her on the phone. Then we met. And she was up for it.”
While he denies he also picked Stewart because she similarly has experienced life in the glare of the flashbulb, they are clearly kindred spirits. “There’s a lot in Kristen’s internal world that helped us to exist in Diana’s perspective,” he says.
“Although she [Diana] was born to privilege and she was close to the Royal family from the very first moments of her life, she was very ordinary, a regular person in a very unusual context. And that is an interesting friction.”
Scripted by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders), the film arrives at a time when Diana, in the year that she would’ve turned 60, is never more popular. The fifth season of The Crown begins this month, with Elizabeth Debicki playing the Princess of Wales in the period leading to her tragic death in 1997, when she and her Egyptian-born partner, Dodi Fayed, were killed in a car crash in Paris.
Diana: The Musical is also currently on stage. And in the works is Diana, an archival documentary from Oscar-nominated director Ed Perkins.
“There’s more to come, I’m sure, and everyone will have a different take,” says Larrain. “But I was confident that we were doing something that just felt different from others … our story was set in the early '90s and it’s not about the whole span of her life. It’s not what I would consider a biopic, I don’t think it’s a biopic. It’s a take on her life. And it’s a very specific moment where she decides to leave the family in order to find her own identity.”
Certainly, Spencer makes some brave choices, showing Diana at her most vulnerable – paranoid, lonely, bulimic and even prone to self-harming. These more difficult moments were always in the script, Larrain says.
“What we wanted to really look at was the cost of that. Why? Why was she there? Why was it so difficult for her? And the movie, I think, gives some clues and approaches to that crisis, and it’s just about someone who eventually realised that she was just in the wrong place.”
It also keeps the Royal family at arm’s length – Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet) has only a couple of lines, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) only a couple of scenes. Instead, the key relationships in the film are with the staff, whether its her favourite dresser (Sally Hawkins), the head chef (Sean Harris) or even the Queen Mother’s equerry (Timothy Spall), who has been requested to keep an eye on her over the festive period.
The TV equivalent might be Downton Abbey, which dramatises the aristocrats and those who keep their household ticking over. Diana, says the director, was “very well known” for befriending those in service to the Royals. “She interacts with people who make her feel better and feel good, and people who could eventually be [her] friends. It’s a deliberate choice to be with people who were willing to make you feel good and confident.”
Larrain also points out that the film evolved as he shot. “Sometimes you discover the movie as you make it.”
In this case, as he watched the young Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry, who play Diana’s sons William and Harry, on set. “I discovered that we were making a movie about motherhood. I saw myself in them.”
In his eyes, Diana comes to a realisation over the course of the film. “I think she understands that an essential element of her identity is the fact that she’s a mother of those boys.”
The Royal family are famed for not commenting on any depictions of them in public, so Larrain has no idea if he’ll ever hear any feedback about his work. “I don’t know,” he says. “I do respect both William and Harry. They’ve had a lot [to cope with] and the only thing that I would like to avoid is to throw another problem to them. I don’t think they deserve it. It’s not what we’re aiming [for].”
Larrain can, at least, rest assured that he’s made a credible and bold portrait of the People’s Princess.
Spencer is in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday