I’ve always enjoyed Steven Knight’s work because it’s so outside my own wheelhouse. Having created the taut, broken-machismo of “Peaky Blinders” and written the urban thrillers “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things,” the 62-year-old Birmingham-born Knight is who you would not pick to map the interior emotional landscape of a damaged young woman from the upper classes.
Then, after watching “Spencer,” I remembered how moved I’ve been by the way Springsteen writes about women, and the tenderness Tarantino evoked for “Jackie Brown.” Like them, counterintuitive as it may seem, Knight knocks it out of the park.
With no disrespect to the other depictions of Diana, if you weren’t actually there to witness what transpired and must therefore imagine, use your imagination. Diana being talked down from suicide by the ghost of Anne Boleyn? Check. Diana consuming and regurgitating the pearl necklace Charles gave both her and his mistress, which she rips from her throat over Christmas dinner with the Queen? Also check.
Knight’s script has a deep understanding of what clothes and jewelry represent to women as we take inventory of what we thought our life would be versus what it has become. “Don’t behave the way they say you behave,” Kristen Stewart’s Diana is implored, something all women have said to themselves.
“Spencer” is, as far as I know, the first horror film about eating disorders. Admiring reviewers have name-checked “The Shining” — with Sandringham in place of the Overlook hotel, red-carpeted corridors instead of corridors of blood. Who makes a horror film about Princess Diana, a film that would be a perfect triple bill with “Mulholland Drive” and “Don’t Look Now?” Steven Knight.
This is the boldest film Sally Hawkins has ever been in, and she’s literally had sex with a fish-man. Not many writers with Knight’s industry leverage are interested in taking risks. “Spencer” is an act of enormous generosity to a woman who has been sanitized and sainted to the point of becoming a touring hologram.
After all the horror, Knight ends “Spencer” with Diana in a speeding car, free, happy, exiting, unscathed, off to a day with her children. The highest praise I can offer: this is the only Diana piece I can see her sons being touched by.
Forrest is an author and filmmaker.