Spencer (12A, 111 mins)
Verdict: A screech of republicanism ★★✩✩✩
Eternals (12A, 157 mins)
Verdict: Seems to last for ever ★★✩✩✩
The captivating Netflix series The Crown has set a high bar for all screen dramatisations of the royal soap opera, a bar that Spencer regrettably fails to reach.
Set on the Sandringham estate during three days over the course of Christmas 1991, with the marriage between Charles and Diana ruptured beyond repair, Spencer, like The Crown, is a work of fiction woven from fact.
A caption at the start of the film, portentously declaring it to be a fable drawn ‘from a true tragedy’, does at least imply that what follows is mostly whimsy.
And so it proves, with gold knobs on.
In truth, Kristen Stewart does a fine job, nailing the breathy voice and Sloaney accent
Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana as a gibbering, dysfunctional wreck (but in a good way), while Jack Farthing gives us a Prince Charles so callous and cold that he could offer your average Nazi commandant a run for his Deutsche Marks.
The other adult royals present only slightly more favourably.
Spencer, set to a score of plaintive strings by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, is a cinematic screech of republicanism.
Director Pablo Larrain has form with tragic female icons. He made Jackie, the 2016 picture about the world’s most famous widow, set in the wake of the Kennedy assassination.
And rather like Jackie, Spencer is a romantic fairy tale turned on its head: the fragrant beauty who loses her prince.
Here, though, the subject is not a world-famous widow but a world-famous bulimic — and we are not allowed to forget it.
One of the wackiest episodes comes during dinner on Christmas Eve, when a despairing Diana tears off a pearl necklace identical to one she knows Charles has given Camilla. The enormous pearls then plop into her soup, whereupon she promptly starts scoffing them before later, inevitably, throwing them up.
Larain and screenwriter Steven Knight, use food throughout as a symbol not just of Diana’s unhappiness but also the family’s absurd imperiousness.
In the vast Sandringham kitchens, the head chef (Sean Harris) reminds the staff to abide by a sign reading ‘Keep Noise To A Minimum — They Can Hear You’.
Yes, these royals are like the monsters in the alien-invasion thriller A Quiet Place, only it’s Diana who is depicted as the alien, entirely at odds with the stuffy formality mostly embodied by the Queen Mother’s hide bound equerry Major Gregory (Timothy Spall).
One of those buttoned-up, patrician Scots for whom sex is what they deliver the coal in, the major has been sent from Clarence House to keep a stern eye on Diana, whose outsider status is rammed home from the start when she loses her way driving herself up to Norfolk.
Here is a woman lost in more ways than one, is the unsubtle message. Her only real soulmate is her favourite dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), although even that relationship turns out to be more complicated than it appears.
The film is at its sweetest when showing us Diana’s warm embrace of motherhood, and in truth Stewart does a fine job, nailing the breathy voice and Sloaney accent.
At first all you see are the differences, but gradually all you see is Diana, even though Stewart is considerably shorter than the princess was.
In fact, the matter of height alone will turn seasoned royal-watchers puce with indignation.
The Queen (Stella Gonet) looks as if she’s been stuffing herself with steroids. She is nearly as tall as the Duke of Edinburgh (Richard Sammel), who incidentally seems to spend most of the movie as an elective mute, another spectacular swerve from reality.
The crashing irony of this film, and its greatest flaw, is that in trying so hard to make us feel sorry for Diana, it leaves us feeling more than a little miffed on behalf of the others, especially Charles.
Well, it did me For all his missteps, Charles is no Henry VIII, hard as Larrain hammers the parallels with Henry’s ill-fated queen Anne Boleyn, with whom Diana, we are led to believe, felt a powerful spiritual kinship.
Kinship also looms large in Eternals, the latest Marvel blockbuster, during which only the gift of eternal life will stop you looking at your watch, willing the final credits to hove in to sight.
Eternals stars Don Lee, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden and Salma Hayek as a diverse group of superheroes
The eponymous Eternals are a band of superheroes created by the Celestials to protect humanity from the Deviants, which is all very well, but there’s surely no need for it to take them quite so long.
Director Chloe Zhao, whose last film was the Oscar-winning Nomadland, gets terribly carried away showing us that she can do outrageous fantasy as well as gritty authenticity, and better still, not at the expense of her liberal credentials.
Thus the Eternals (played by Angelina Jolie and Richard Madden, among others) are diversity-friendly superheroes, varying in ethnicity and sexuality.
There is even a split personality and a deaf-mute in their number, to remind us that mental and physical disabilities are not incompatible with living for ever and saving the planet.
The CGI-augmented action whisks us on a dizzying tour through history and geography from ancient Mesopotamia to modern-day Camden Town, in a story that fuses with Greek myth and legend in a way that would be streamlined and thrilling if it wasn’t so bloated and boring.
But if you’re looking for harmony (and heart)…
My favourite release of the week is the least glitzy by a very long way. It’s a documentary called Men Who Sing (★★★★✩, 78 mins, 12A) and it’s a real charmer, made with manifest devotion by Dylan Williams, who also made a lovely film 11 years ago called Men Who Swim.
Men Who Sing tells the story of friendships between old men who, apart from their weekly rehearsal, come together all too often to perform at the funerals of the latest of them to pass away
That was about the camaraderie within Sweden’s all-male synchronised swimming team, of which Williams was a member. This, too, is deeply personal: inspired by Ed, his elderly father in North Wales, who has been singing with the same male-voice choir for 65 years.
And it is also about camaraderie — friendships between old men who, apart from their weekly rehearsal, come together all too often to perform at the funerals of the latest of them to pass away.
Unsurprisingly, there is a melancholic feel to all this, but it is also tremendously life-affirming in its way, full of humour and warmth, not to mention a glorious finale as the choir competes again for the first time in 15 years. I would defy anyone to watch with dry eyes.
The Card Counter (★★★✩✩, 15, 111 mins) is a hard watch for very different reasons, as it gradually becomes clear why a brilliant professional gambler (Oscar Isaac) suffers from a form of post-traumatic stress. The writer-director is Paul Schrader, to whose long list of illustrious credits (he wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese) this is a worthy addition.
I couldn’t quite shake off a sense that the two distinct narratives would have been better served by separate films, but Isaac is splendid and gets top-notch support from Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish and Willem Dafoe.
Red Notice (★★★✩✩, 12A, 115 mins) is a tongue-in-cheek art-heist caper starring Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot. Reynolds does his standard jaunty turn as a wisecracking rascal, and there’s nothing particularly original about any of it — apart perhaps from an unexpected glimpse of The Great British Bake Off. Doughy, but easy to digest.
- IN CINEMAS, with Red Notice also showing on Netflix from November 12.