In The Queen – to which this seems a handy riposte – Diana, Princess of Wales, appears only in stock footage near the end, slowed down so that her smile seems to be like Damien’s at the end of The Omen. Here, rather than appear as a spectre, Diana (Kristen Stewart) is the gothic girl in an old dark house tale. Crucially, she’s the Woman in White (gowns laid out by servants and mandated by protocol) rather than Marian … Lucy, rather than Mina … the woman driven mad and destroyed, rather than the woman (like Helen Mirren as the Queen) who prevails. A literal and metaphorical ghost stalks this version of Sandringham, Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), beheaded by a king who wanted to ditch her for another model of wife. And the depiction of the Firm suggests the Royal Family haven’t changed all that much since the days of the headsman.
Set over the three-day Christmas holidays in 1991, Pablo Lorrain’s film – scripted by Steven Knight – gives more deep historical background than biographical, which gives it a kind of delirious, obsessive nebulousness. We get enormous detail about the preparation of meals and the running of the household, with vivid performances from Timothy Spall, Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins as servants … but the major Royals are almost non-speaking parts until Charles (Jack Farthing) starts seething at his sons’ mother and her myriad deliberate faux pas. I was reminded a lot of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days and Elephant, which similarly drift through stories so well known the films don’t have to bother telling them – both those end with deaths, of course, while this has an illusory uplift towards the end that doesn’t escape the inevitable heavy foreshadowing of doom.
This Diana could almost be a Lucille Ball ditz – she gets lost driving to an estate which adjoins the one where she grew up, then fetches a ragged coat from a scarecrow on the notion that it might be her father’s and goes exploring the abandoned mansion of her childhood. Her defence mechanism is to act childishly, and she’s only seen to be happy when with her own children, who are already worried about what will happen to her if she keeps this up. Knight tentatively proposes that Diana’s unhappy adulthood was a fall from her idealised early days – though it seems likely that her troubles began well before she met any Windsors, and the film doesn’t quite acknowledge how posh the Spencers were that a daughter of that house could be said to have married beneath herself into the Royal Family. Lorrain blurs things to undercut the sentiment. As shown here, Diana’s past is, after all, a scarecrow and another haunted house. This Diana claims to be ‘awfully common’ and love fast food, though the real one was more prone to nipping into the Ivy for a salad than taking her sons to KFC.
One takeaway from the film is that awful as a regimented, ritualised Royal Christmas might be – the only family that actually have to watch the Queen’s Speech before they can eat, with bird-murdering on the menu as a Boxing Day treat – Diana’s antics make things worse for anyone who has to do actual work around the living waxworks. Maggie (Hawkins), the maid Diana likes (and who more than likes her back), is thought to be too close to the Princess and sent away, but comes back when Diana demands she be returned and it seems only extreme measures will prevent her melting down. Just think how Maggie’s Christmas plans, if any, are ruined by the decrees of a hidebound Establishment and the whims of a privileged rebel. Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), household tyrant, isn’t a comedy head butler or a Julian Ffellowes character but an army veteran of gruesome business in Northern Ireland because you don’t get and hold down a job like his without being a hard, practical bastard.
Lorrain is a great filmmaker of political ghost stories – following his visions of Argentina (Tony Manero, Post Mortem) and America (Jackie), he takes on the UK here, cutting back on the heritage industry fetishism of royal ritual (here, putting together a meal for lords and ladies is about as glamorous as a factory assembly line) and minimising the 1991 period details (nothing to get nostalgic about except perhaps a blast of Mike and the Mechanics). It won’t be the last Dianasploitation movie.