‘Spencer’: Kristen Stewart Gives a Transformative Performance as Princess Diana

We all know that the life of the late Lady Diana Spencer, also known as the Princess of Wales, was anything but a fairy tale. Most recently, her troubled marriage to Prince Charles was dramatized in the Netflix series “The Crown.” Now, director Pablo Larraín presents an even more intimate portrait of her in his latest film, “Spencer.” Unlike previous depictions of Diana, this biopic is mostly speculative, and a title-card in the beginning lets the viewer know that what they are about to watch is a “fable from a true tragedy.” Just as he did with his previous subject, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie,” Larraín takes what we already know about the royal and imagines her in her private moments. Kristen Stewart may not have been the most obvious choice to play Diana, but the American actress, who herself has had to deal with turmoil in her private life under the glare of the public, delivers a vulnerable, transformative performance. Unlike “The Crown” actress Emma Corrin, Stewart never completely disappears into the role, but Corrin had the benefit of being an unknown talent and British. The “Twilight” star had to get more creative with the material, and the results are impressive. 

“Spencer” is set during a period of three days, December 24-26, 1991. Diana, along with the rest of the royal family, is spending the holiday at one of their picturesque country estates,  Sandringham House. Despite the beauty of her surroundings and the many people around her, not only her large family but also a full house of staff, the young woman appears to be more lonely than ever. After ten years of marriage to Charles (Jack Farthing), their union is on the brink of collapse, and his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles hangs over Diana like a storm cloud. She never refers to her husband’s longtime mistress by name here, only calling the woman “her.” She reveals to Maggie (Sally Hawkins), her dresser and confidante, that Charles gave both herself and “her” the same set of pearls, but she’s not sure if he was intentionally trying to hurt her or if he just made an absentminded error. To anyone who knows even the basics about the prince and this marriage, the answer is probably the latter.

“Spencer” starts off like a fairy tale, with the princess getting lost in the idyllic countryside while doing some last-minute shopping. She’s managed to slip away from her bodyguards and ends up in a diner asking for directions. The workers and customers are in awe of the glamorous young royal who they’ve only seen on TV and in print, all decked out in a fashionable outfit. Back at Sandringham, we learn that these looks are never effortlessly put together. She has a dresser who carefully selects outfits for the numerous changes she is required to make throughout the day. One cannot wear the same outfit that they wore to breakfast to lunch in this world, even when visiting with close family. 

As Sandringham is close to her childhood home, Diana feels nostalgic for the past. On a random scarecrow, she spots a coat that she believes to have belonged to her father, and runs out into a field in her high heels to grab it. In the diner, we see Stewart recreate that mixture of bashfulness and graciousness that made Diana so beloved, but as the story progresses, she digs deeper, tapping into the vulnerability of this woman who married the wrong man at a young age and basically gave up her autonomy. The film is called “Spencer” because we see her struggle to reclaim her identity, not just as a Spencer, but also her children’s mother. While it’s no big revelation that Diana was a loving mom who was the happiest when she was with her sons, Stewart and Larraín imaginatively recreate those moments where she is able to be a normal mom to William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). At this point, both boys have become property of the state themselves, and Diana’s frustrations are palpable as she struggles to maintain their innocence and protect them royal traditions that she feels may be damaging.

“Spencer” is a beautiful shot film that rarely lets Diana out of the viewer’s sight. Keeping us with her really drives home how isolated she felt. Besides her kids and Maggie, there’s really no one she can be herself around, and Maggie is driven off for a large chunk of the holiday due to a misunderstanding, which devastates Diana. As for the rest of the staff, we see how some of them, such as Chef Darren (Sean Harris), seem torn between adhering to the rules of formality and offering this broken woman support. The presence of Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), an ex-military man loyal to the royal family, unnerves her, especially after he catches her binging late at night in the kitchen, one of the telltale signs of her bulimia. It is Gregory whom she suspects of leaving a biography of Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated queen of Henry VIII’s who was beheaded after her husband fell for another woman, on her bed. Visions of Anne (Amy Manson) haunt her, adding to the claustrophobic feel as the walls around her close in.

While “Spencer” doesn’t uncover anything new about Diana’s life, the film does a wonderful job of showing different facets of her, including her playful side. With all the tragedy surrounding her life and death, people tend to forget the little details, such as her love of pop music and wicked sense of humor. At one point, she shoos away a member of the household staff before Christmas dinner, informing her that she wishes to masturbate. 

Spencer” releases Nov. 5 in theaters nationwide.