As a rule, I tend to avoid anything to do with the royal family. I’m opposed to the very idea of a monarchy (I’d use the word ‘republican,’ but that has different connotations these days), and am genuinely bemused by the affection people feel for the current bunch of tax-guzzlers. I’ve never seen a single episode of The Crown and I don’t care one jot where Harry and Meghan live, or if they’ve stopped performing ‘royal duties.’ I do think that Prince Andrew should be held to account for his actions – like anyone else accused of a crime – but that’s another story.
Suffice to say, I’m not drawn to this movie because it’s about Diana. Of course her death was a tragedy; that’s indisputable. Of course the monarchy made her life miserable; that seems indisputable too. But I never engaged in the national pastime of adoring her, nor in the national outpouring of grief at her demise. Hers was a distant story, about someone I didn’t know.
No, the truth is, I’m drawn to this movie because of the casting. I’m a big fan of Kristen Stewart (her performances in Certain Women, Seberg and Personal Shopper are all stellar), and the supporting roles are populated by the great and the good too: to wit, Timothy Spall as baleful equerry Major Alistar Gregory, and Sally Hawkins as Diana’s dresser, Maggie. The trailer is enticing; my interest is piqued.
The premise is simple: it’s Christmas. Like many a family, the royals gather to spend it together. Unlike many other families, they have a plethora of palaces to choose from, and an army of underlings to ensure everything runs smoothly (said underlings, it goes without saying, can’t enjoy the festive season with their own families). So many underlings, in fact, that it’s stultifying, and it’s easy to see why Diana feels trapped and claustrophobic. Even her tiniest transgressions are noted, reported and duly addressed; the traditions are set in stone, and she has no option but to conform.
Although this film is fiction, truth shines through it: the stifling atmosphere is almost palpable. Director Pablo Larrain depicts an inflexible institution; Diana is expected to mask her mental health problems – not just from the outside world, but also from her family, in the home that is so blatantly not hers. Her inability to do this is seen as wilful, as if depression and bulimia can just be wished away. This is a family so out of touch it’s painful. (Obliging a woman with an eating disorder to undergo a humiliating ceremonial weighing to ensure she’s eaten enough Christmas dinner. Really?) Maybe I do care a little bit about where Harry and Meghan live. As far away from this toxic environment as possible, I hope.
Stewart is luminous in this role. She brings Diana to life in a credible, relatable way. She’s fragile, but there’s a strong core: a survival instinct that compels her to rebel. Jonny Greenwood’s score is wonderful: the discordant piano adding to the sense of confinement. In contrast, the final, glorious rendition of All I Need is a Miracle is a breath of fresh air in an open-top car, away from the suffocating velvet curtains, stitched shut.
The people’s princess isn’t sanctified here – we see the carelessness her privilege affords her (wrecking the feast the kitchen staff have prepared for the next day; refusing carefully prepared treats from those who care for her; recalling staff from their holidays; asking the police to lie for her), but she is humanised. She’s presented as essentially sweet-natured, but flawed, as are we all. There’s a montage of memories that takes us from a little girl practising ballet, by way of a nervous bride to a woman running for her life. It’s devastating. I find myself on the edge of my seat, rooting for her, willing her to escape that gilded cage.
And, for a few short years, she did.