Also reviewed this week: The Card Counter and Love Yourself Today
Spencer (12A, 117mins) ****
In death, Lady Di has become a kind of secular saint, Diana de la dolorosa. Devotees buy trinkets, which they knead like rosary beads while railing against the unfeeling regime that effectively martyred her. In fact, 24 years after her death, she’s a bigger box-office draw than ever.
A musical was released last month, there have been countless TV miniseries, and in The Crown Emma Corrin played a young and spectacularly bulimic Diana. Elizabeth Debicki will play an older Di in season five of the Netflix show and meanwhile we have Spencer, Pablo Larraín’s high-tempo baroque horror set during a stultifying family Christmas at Sandringham, Lady Di its most reluctant attendee.
The idea of confining his melodrama to a three-day timescale is clever, as the ramping pressure reveals cracks — and strengths — in Diana’s brittle personality. Larraín, an unfailingly intelligent filmmaker, has also been daring in his choice of Diana. But perhaps he guessed that Kristen Stewart, as a survivor of tabloid abuse herself, might have a unique understanding of the pressures Diana Spencer faced.
It’s Crimbo 1991, and Diana has escaped her royal handlers to motor down to Sandringham alone. She manages to get lost, this despite the fact that she grew up right next to the dreary old pile: and when she walks into a roadside cafe to ask for directions, punters gawp, open-mouthed, as though the Blessed Virgin has materialised. For poor old Di, normal life is no longer possible, in or out of the palaces.
At Sandringham, she will be oppressed by seven-course meals, and endless nonsensical traditions. Diana will spew most of the ham and turkey down the toilet bowl, being careful to splash no puke on the ghastly dresses royal protocol insists she wear. Her only respite is intimate hours snatched with her boys William and Harry, but Charles meanwhile is more aloof than ever, while the rest of the royal retinue clearly see her as a loose canon.
That she is, unhappy and delusional, unhinged enough at one point to catch sight of another famous royal victim, Anne Boleyn, who urges Di to make a break for it. Run she does, and in the film’s most overtly nightmarish scene, Diana leaps the fences at Sandringham like one of HM’s fillies and breaks into her childhood home, Park House, now gone to rack and ruin. There she will have disturbing visions, but also a bolt of clarity.
This is very much a mini-breakdown told from Diana’s point of view: all the other principal characters, so vividly imagined in The Crown, here drift unhelpfully in and out of focus, apparently baffled as to what the princess’s problem might be. Steeped in luxury, coddled at every turn, Diana’s life is the dream of many, but she’s starved of love, bored out of her wellie.
While Diana lived she was often portrayed as an attention-seeking ninny. I assumed this to be the case myself, and when I saw her on that BBC interview with Martin Bashir, I thought it was a ghastly exercise in flirty, tell-all coyness. But we now know that that interview was essentially conducted under duress, that Diana Spencer’s problems were real, and that after she managed to extricate herself from the royal clutch, she did much good as an ambassador for various charities.
A princess, then, more sinned against than sinning, but to the Windsor heavyweights she’s nothing more than a histrionic irritant. The underlings are far worse, particularly one Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), chief flunky at Sandringham and an ex-army type who probably irons his underpants.
His wattle wobbles with disapproval every time Diana enters the room, and her contempt for tradition wounds him deeply.
Most of the attention Larraín’s beautifully made and archly stylised film has attracted relates to the performance of Kristen Stewart, and her suggestions that she was channelling Diana’s spirit.
Whatever about her gifts as a medium, Stewart has become a fine actor in recent years, and gives us a quite superb portrayal of a lost young woman, fragile but dogged, and determined to assert her humanity whatever the cost.
(15A, 112mins) ****
Paul Schrader has always been first and foremost a moralist, and in everything from Taxi Driver and Raging Bull to Mishima and Afterlife, has weighed the ideas of conscience, moral responsibility and the state of a person’s soul. He’s at it again in The Card Counter, a beautifully written drama starring Oscar Isaac as William Tillich, a rootless and withdrawn gambler. Bill is a very fine poker player, and supplements his income by counting cards at blackjack.
He has a past, having worked as a guard at Abu Ghraib, and spent 10 years in jail as a consequence. Now he lives a spartan life, austere and joyless, until he meets two people who change everything.
La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) works for a poker stable, and wants to back Bill in the World Series. She also has feelings for him, but then a young loner called Cirk (Tye Sheridan) appears with a plan to kill the commanding officer at Abu Ghraib. With redemption in sight, Bill is drawn back towards his violent past. This is a powerful, grimly substantial film, and Isaac is excellent as a man who has learned to sublimate his rage, and pain.
(12A, 80mins) ****
“There’s so much trauma out there,” Damien Dempsey says quietly at the start of this remarkable little documentary, which acts as a kind of musical group therapy session. It’s built around footage of one of his legendary Christmas gigs at Vicar Street, cathartic sing-a-longs that celebrate the pain and pleasure of being a Dubliner in Dempsey’s raw and soulful style. Interspersed with rousing ballads, and Damo’s own reflections, are the stories of three ordinary Dubliners.
There’s Packy, a boxing coach, who has anxiety and once saw a friend get shot dead, and Jonathan, a former alcoholic traumatised by a childhood attack who now finds solace in sea swimming. And then there’s Nadia, the child of a violent alcoholic, a mother at 17, and a recovering addict.
She is one of the faces in the crowd at Dempsey’s 2019 Christmas concert, and as we watch walkers on the Bull Wall at sunset, she movingly describes “listening to the birds again for the first time after you’ve come off drugs, it’s just… you feel alive again, because you can’t hear any of that.” Love Yourself Today is a film about pain, but also about healing, and redemption.