And the Academy Award Goes To: Kristen Stewart’s Transformative Princess Diana
The first words we hear from Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) in the new film Spencer — in a gas station café in Norfolk where she is driving herself to the royal Sandringham estates for the Christmas holidays — are in the form of a simple question. “Where the fuck am I?” she asks the diners who sit, open-mouthed and flabbergasted, in thrall to seeing the besieged Princess in the flesh. She’s lost — literally and metaphorically — and the question is as much for directions through the English countryside as it is a cry from the heart.
Thus, we are introduced to the iconic Princess Di in Pablo Larraín’s speculative Spencer, tracing the time between Christmas and Boxing Day when the harried, harangued titular character (Spencer was Diana’s maiden name) may have set in motion her escape from the clutches of the cold-blooded matriarchy.
Substitute “matriarchy” with “the press” — which also haunted Diana for the remainder of her life — and you feel Stewart’s attraction and understanding of the character (though her performance is certainly more nuanced than that facile reduction would infer).
“Creatively, it’s spring for me,” she has said. “Recently having played Diana in this movie, this experience has opened me up, and I just feel taller, and I took more light into my physicality making this movie than I ever have.”
Without doubt, this is Stewart’s most luminous on-screen performance to date. For those naysayers who think she’s merely the mopey girl who sleepwalked through large parts of the Twilight films, I would counter that she’s been truly inspired in a number of roles, from her tackling of the iconic Joan Jett in The Runaways to her work with acclaimed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. (Stewart remains the only American to have won a French César — their Academy Award — for her supporting turn in the Clouds of Sils Maria.)
The physicality she brings to Diana is uncanny; she’s in such command of her body language that the liberation in her acting is bone-deep. She can plumb the depths of her oppression by the Royal Family and their minions (Timothy Spall as the supercilious Major Alistar Gregory, assigned to help watch over the wayward Princess, is delightfully slimy), question her marriage to the zombified Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), challenge the Queen (Stella Gonet) with all manner of microaggressions, and still have time to engage with her beloved children or dance through the ghostly hallways of the palatial estate.
“She also is someone who is not afraid to laugh and dance and cry and do it all in public and be messy, but also just be somebody who loves unabashedly,” Stewart has said. It’s such a beautiful feeling — letting yourself lead with light.”
Spencer, written by Steven Knight, isn’t a conventional biopic. Prior to its start, a screen card announces that the film is “A Fable Based on a True Tragedy,” which allows the script to reign over imagined experiences and extrapolate as needed. Some of the conceits don’t work. Diana is visited by the ghost of Anne Boleyn, and the metaphor is heavy-handed. Diana spends much of the film trying to leave the grounds to visit her childhood home, dilapidated and just across the field from Sandringham, and the sight of that estate in ruins is too perfect a visual reference to Diana’s mental state. And the film, though full of gorgeous horizons and spatial overstuffed rooms, is claustrophobic. Often, while watching Spencer, you get the sense of what a panic attack actually feels like.
A few fictional items, though dramatically suspect, work despite themselves. The interplay between Stewart and Sally Hawkins, as her dresser Maggie (who is secretly in love with the Princess), is an agreeable though unnecessary touch. And the composite of Diana, in various holiday finery, twirling through the halls is a bit long, though the sense of timelessness it imparts, and Stewart’s lyrical delicacy … well, there are worse ways to waste a few seconds.
Ultimately, I’m not sure how I feel about Larraín’s film. Factually, who knows what is and isn’t based in reality here, not that anyone should be going to the movies for historical accuracy. Emotionally, though, it feels authentic. So deeply nestled inside her character is Stewart that it’s impossible to get any distance from her Diana, and I think that effect is both experiential and off-putting, though she pulls off a transformation in reverse. She strips Princess Diana from her iconic status and shows us the vulnerable, petulant, frightened and vibrantly alive human being underneath. She transcends the film’s flaws and effortlessly advances to the head of the pack in this year’s Best Actress race.