Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Pablo Larraín is one of the top filmmakers from Chile. Four of his features have been chosen as the official submissions to the Academy Awards from Chile. He was a producer for A Fantastic Woman (2017), which is the first Chilean film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Larraín’s most successful film is probably Jackie (2016), which was nominated for three Oscars at the 89th Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Natalie Portman, as well as Best Original Score and Best Costume Design. This film will likely be listed in those same categories for the upcoming 94th Academy Awards, bringing Larraín back into the spotlight only five years later. Coincidentally, it will be for a film that is in many ways a spiritual sequel to Jackie. Both Jackie and this one are biopics depicting a very famous and highly influential woman who’s considered royalty in one way or the other, focusing on a sliver of that woman’s life, as she tries to juggle being in the limelight.
Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria) stars as Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales, as she spends the 1991 Christmas holiday with the British royal family. She points out that she’s going to be visiting for three days, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. It is evident that Diana doesn’t want to be there. This is indicative of her being the absolute last person to arrive. She allegedly gets lost on her drive up to the estate where the holiday is being celebrated. However, she reveals that a home where she lived as a child is literally on land that’s adjacent or next-door to the royal family’s estate.
There are several reasons as to why Diana doesn’t want to be there with the royal family. The first has to do with food. Larraín establishes very early that food will be one of the key components in this story and will in fact be one of the antagonists here. Larraín stages the food’s arrival to the royal estate and even its preparation as if it were weaponry or armament for an impending war. A group of soldiers literally deliver said food. What becomes clear is that Diana is fighting a war, a war with food. Diana has an eating disorder. She most likely suffers from bulimia and she knows that designated meals where she’ll be forced to eat in front of people would obviously add to her anxiety.
Sean Harris (The Green Knight and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) co-stars as Darren McGrady, the head chef for the royal family. He’s doing his best to run the kitchen as expertly and proficiently as possible. He’s tough and demanding, someone who went to the same school of thought as Gordon Ramsay, not too far afield from a drill sergeant. However, he never loses his temper or has some kind of crazy explosion. In this quasi Downton Abbey (2010) like structure, Darren represents the servants or downstairs group of people that express a bit of affection and compassion for what Diana is experiencing.
Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water and Happy-Go-Lucky) also co-stars as Maggie, the royal dresser. She’s one of the women responsible for mending the clothes and even for helping a family member put on their clothes. She is perhaps the prime example of servants who express a bit of affection and compassion for Diana. Diana talks honestly and often openly with all the servants, but, in terms of servants she can trust, Maggie is top of the list. Darren is on the list apparently, but Maggie is top. Diana even seeks counsel from Maggie, seeing her as a friend, or at least someone who is loyal to Diana and not the other members of the royal family.
Loyalty means not repeating anything she says to anybody else. While on the one hand Diana is a woman who has come to value privacy, on the other hand, it might seem like she doesn’t. One issue that she faces while within the royal estate is the fact that she likes to have the curtains in her room open. Royal family members would prefer that she keep them closed because they’re worried about paparazzi taking a picture of something that they’d prefer stay private or hidden. Diana rebels by keeping her curtains open. This doesn’t necessarily speak to her feelings about her private life, but more about the control that’s being exercised on her. She wants control of her life, instead of it being under the control of the royal family.
Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) also co-stars as Alistair Gregory, a retired military officer. He’s basically the head of the household. He has a high-ranking title and position, but he seems to be a glorified butler. When it comes to loyalty, it seems as if Alistair is on the complete opposite side of Diana and is more loyal to the other royal family members, particularly the queen. His job is to keep an eye on Diana and keep Diana in line and on time to the traditions and customs of the holiday. He’s all about duty and obligation. He doesn’t see Diana as she sees things. He doesn’t see the cage she’s in.
Jack Farthing (Love Wedding Repeat and Poldark) plays Charles, the Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the throne. He’s the husband to Diana and father of her children. Ironically, he’s the other reason as to why Diana doesn’t want to be at the estate for the holidays. One might wonder why we hardly ever see Diana with her husband and why they don’t spend time together unless it’s necessary, such as for dinner or something. One might wonder why he seems so cold and distant. It’s never stated in explicit ways, but if one is aware of the actual history, then one knows that Charles’ distance from his wife is due to his infidelity with another woman. The two also seem to clash over parenting styles as well. Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry round out the cast as Prince William and Prince Harry, respectively. William is 9-years-old and Harry is 6. They are the only two children of Diana and Charles.
Written by Steven Knight (Locke and Dirty Pretty Things), the film feels like it’s going to be a one-person narrative or a narrative that only features one person and no one else. Locke was literally a film where we only see one person for the entire run-time. It was about a man driving his car and that’s it. All we see is this one man in his car and nobody else. When we initially see Diana, she’s driving her car. As she arrives at the royal estate, she has interactions here and there, but mainly we’re following her, as she roams the estate and its various rooms alone. It’s a script that’s perfectly suited for Larraín who has numerous sequences in Jackie that are selfsame. However, those sequences of a lonely or isolated Diana might be additions that Larraín specifically brought to this production.
That, mixed with the other shots that Larraín frames, really accentuate Stewart’s performance, which is fantastic. If I had to compare her performance here to another, I would compare it to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). We start to see the deconstruction of this woman. There’s a veneer or persona that instead of her portraying herself, it’s being put on her, much like a dress. Yet, it’s not who she truly is, and maintaining the facade begins her spiral almost into madness. The emotional abuse from her husband may not seem as intense as that from Stanley Kowalski, but the damage is real.
As depressing and heart-wrenching as this film might seem for most of its run-time, there is a bright side and a brightness here that comes in various doses. The first of which is the love that Diana has for her children and the love they have for her. The warmth, the charm and the beauty in her moments with her children are the film at its loveliest. There’s also another surprising scene of warmth that comes from a very unlikely place and proves queer love or same-sex attraction as coming to the rescue in more ways than one.
Finally, of all the product placement that this film could have had, I was most surprised by that of KFC. I figured that all of the major food chains in the USA are present in the UK and elsewhere, including that of the former Kentucky Fried Chicken. To be prominently featured in this film though was a hoot.
Rated R for language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 51 mins.