A fable from a true tragedy. These words mark our entry to Pablo Larraín’s portrait of the late Princess Diana, making uncertain the direction of its sympathy. Of course, the ‘true tragedy’ is obvious. We know how the story of Diana ends, though to call the film a fable complicates this. A fable of what exactly? Does a fable not imply caution or warning, and thus a moment of choice? Abandon all hope, ye who enter. And yet, despite the title card, a moral tale seems to not be the film’s goal.
Set over the course of a Christmas spent at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, Larraín’s film appears intent on carving a psychological drama out of history. It blends the familiar legacy of a martyred (and often criticised) public figure, who is on the verge of divorce and wrestling with an eating disorder, with an air of enchantment, of mythology. Its depiction of the British royal family’s Christmas of 1991 is clearly a heightened product of Larraín’s imagination, but the shape of its tension feels all too real. The context of Diana’s life and death haunt the film; it resides in the grooves of its skin.
It’s difficult to engage thoroughly with Larraín’s film without first paying attention to Kristen Stewart as Diana. Proving herself increasingly worthy of reverence as an actress, Stewart is spectacular; her Diana is dramatic, perhaps overly affectatious, guarded, both constrained by and much more than the figure she aims to embody. Embodiment seems an important frame of analysis. There is an abundance of sequences wherein Larraín’s camera worships Stewart’s excellent mimicry; amidst a busier scene, it lingers on her eyes, her awkwardness. Her glances at others are almost photographic — they are hauntingly close to the source of her impersonation. And yet, there is an undeniably elaborate quality to Stewart’s performance; it is as dramatic as the image of a string of pearls breaking, or of a gown drifting through midnight fog. It is an example of cinematic layering at its finest: despite the craft and effort she puts into her performance, we never lose sight of Stewart. Often with biopics, audiences must suspend their knowledge of its fiction. They must ignore the distinction between the person and the performance. But perhaps the visibility of this distinction actually renders a performance all the more impressive. Stewart’s Diana is not merely an impersonation. It spills beyond Diana precisely to accentuate the tragedy of her life. It will be difficult to forget the images of Stewart as she glides through corridors, as she runs across fields, and as she vulnerably stands in a field of pheasants before her gun-toting relatives.
Indeed, to call Larraín’s film a biopic undermines its beguiling spectrality. Jonny Greenwood’s exquisite score elevates the story, which, stripped of its breathtaking appearance, is essentially a royal melodrama. There is an overwhelming, almost crowded, quality to the scenes he scores. His score weighs heavily on the senses. It would be an interesting study to analyse the music as in symbiosis with Diana; it often synchronises with her exact movements. This symbiosis reminds us of the film’s position in relation to Diana: certainly, Larraín’s crafting of the film — its score, its cinematography — is intensely devoted to Diana’s experience. Her feeling of entrapment drives the film aesthetically and criticises the very culture responsible. Then what does the film add to the legacy of Diana? Precisely how far does it criticise the culture that, in her involvement, led to her untimely death?
Currency is a word that is repeated by several characters. It describes the nature of their existence as royals: their faces on pound notes, their public personas, their lives as objects of media scrutiny. And yet, Larraín’s film does not subscribe to pitying the royals but instead seems concerned with capturing a slice of their world, as felt by its loneliest participant. It does not ignore the opulence and obvious privilege afforded to the inhabitants of this palatial drama; in fact, the decadence only serves to further our own intoxication. How else does one make a film about the royal establishment, itself absurd, without relishing in absurdity?
The mannered artificiality of the film emphasises the inane rituals of the royal institution. Christmas dinner is made into a tense thriller, the banquets and the antiquated traditions — weighing guests as just a ‘bit of a fun’ — verge on farcical. The mise-en-scene is reminiscent of something plucked from Kubrick’s imagination. Spencer is ridiculous, gorgeous, bold, daring. It’s a bowl of pea soup laced with pearls. It’s difficult to look away. I urge you not to.