Is there an actress of the modern era more celebrated for her daring choices and committed performances than Kristen Stewart? Certainly she has no competitors in the English speaking world, and even in wider global cinema Stewart has little competition. The former Twilight megastar has earned wide acceptance in independent film as well as in France, perhaps the hardest market for an American to please, let alone win a César in. Her recent return to the mainstream – in the likes of Underwater, Charlie’s Angels, Happiest Season and now Spencer – has heralded a new phase of her career, one that could potentially add an Oscar to her growing list of awards.
It is Christmas 1991 and the marriage of Princess Diana (Stewart) and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is on rotten ice. Rumours of affairs abound, but for the sake of her in-laws and sons Harry and William (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry respectively) Diana has decided to do her best to maintain peace at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. Yet, her barely controlled bulimia as well as the toll of public scrutiny and the Royal Family’s disapproval of her and Charles’ icy relationship may drive Diana to extreme measures over the next three days.
In terms of modern royals, Diana, Princess of Wales is the metaphorical mountain. All others exist within her shadow. The death of Prince Philip this past year was a cloud’s passing shadow compared to the pall Diana’s tragic death cast over the UK and indeed the world in 1997. So it stands to reason that a talent equal to Diana’s legacy should play the role. That hasn’t always been the case, but some of the most notable actresses to play the part include Serena Scott Thomas, Naomi Watts, Emma Corin and Elizabeth Debicki. But all pale in comparison to Kristen Stewart.
Princess Diana was an icon, certainly, but more importantly for Spencer, she was also human; and Stewart and director Pablo Larraín go to great lengths to show this. The risk of a biopic is in lionising or vilifying its subject. That’s what makes films like Malcolm X or Nixon or Downfall so fascinating. Before they were princesses or presidents or führers, they were people; and like any person, they come loaded with qualities, flaws and contradictions. Spencer endeavours to show neither Diana the Princess, Diana the Wife nor Diana the Mother – but Diana the Woman.
Kristen Stewart can find humanity in any character and, although it’s more obvious in Personal Shopper than Twilight, there’s a reason she’s been a bankable star for nearly 15 years. If a character is written as tough, Stewart will find a way to express their vulnerability. Even in something as basic as Underwater, Stewart captivates throughout, thanks in part to a bleached blonde buzz cut but also in her ability to give her character a sense of history through the way she moves, the way she holds herself and the way she talks. It’s when Stewart teams up with once-in-a-generation directors like Olivier Assayas or Larraín that her honed talent and skill shine like the wintertime sun.
A bad biopic is easy to make. Even a good biopic relies more on costume and performance than it does on direction. Spencer is the best biopic of this young decade thus far. Larraín turns every encounter Diana has with almost anyone into a constantly shifting battle. A late night encounter with Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) in a walk-in fridge feels like it’s drawing from both The Shining and The Silence of the Lambs. Both Stewart and Spall play off each other wonderfully, neither seeming certain of the other’s true intentions or feelings, allowing the scene to oscillate between claustrophobic anxiety and uneasy peace. But it’s thanks to Larraín’s direction, drawing on both Stanley Kubrick’s eye for detail and Jonathan Demme’s calling card of having the characters address the camera directly, that the scene feels as haunting and as psychologically rich as it does.
Even if Larraín wasn’t attached as director, the script – by Locke writer-director and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? co-creator Steven Knight – is so textured and layered that its own artistry would speak loudly even without Larraín’s intimate style. Many conversations Diana has with Gregory or her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), or Darren, the Royal Head Chef (Sean Harris) or even Queen Elizabeth herself (Stella Gonet) are weighted with metaphor and double speak. Comparisons to untamed horses, currency and Queen Anne Boleyn abound, the latter appearing to Diana as a ghostly vision at crucial points. It’s gold on the page, but the cast make it sing, especially Stewart who is all breathy petulance, battle-weary sighs and occasional gay abandon.
Like any period drama set in an old, old house, Pablo Larraín makes sure to not just allude to the gothic but let his film be fully subsumed by it every so often. The house Diana grew up in lies on the grounds of Sandringham. Boarded up and declared unsafe, Diana is forbidden from entering this house, haunted by the memories of what the film makes out to be a happy, uncomplicated childhood. In addition to Anne Boleyn’s spectral visits, as well as Diana’s own ferociously intrusive visions of swallowing pearls, Larraín ensures to include a shot of Diana crossing the field to her childhood home in her Christmas Day gown lit by the full moon, with Sandringham looming like Castle Dracula in the background.
Elsewhere, aided by Johnny Greenwood’s score that moves from dissonant synths to hellish organs to free-flowing jazz, Spencer takes on aspects of psychological horror. At another point, as the Royal Family leave Christmas Day mass to greet crowds outside, Diana is met by an almost literal wall of photographers, black lens and telescopic sights, making this army of faceless men into something almost Lovecraftian.
For as much as Spencer depicts Diana’s troubled mental health and crumbling private life, it does find joy when and where it can. Almost every scene she shares with her sons is full of the love she has for what Diana clearly sees as the only two good things that came out of her marriage. Whether it’s a candlelit game of soldiers or gifting William and Harry plush toys she bought in a roadside garage, moments like these – as well as those with her only true allies among the staff, Hawkins’ Maggie and Harris’ Darren – allow for some levity in a film that often feels like we, along with Diana, are resisting either Stockholm Syndrome or suicidal ideation.
Even if Spencer was as dour as English dramas about the nobility can be, it would never lack for levity in the costuming. This is Diana, Princess of Wales after all. Throughout the film Diana’s iconic outfits are showcased, including one sequence that sees Stewart dancing through Sandringham’s halls in some of the Princess’ more underappreciated dresses: whether it’s the diamond tiara paired with a midnight black gown; a pastel yellow two-piece topped by a similarly coloured tricorner; or a knee length red number offset by battered white Nikes. It’s easy to ask why we don’t get to see the “Revenge Dress” or the “Travolta Dress“, but when everything she wore was a hit, why bother with the ones everyone’s already seen? For the Best Oscar for Costuming in 2022, it’s a one horse race.
You could say the same for the Best Actress category as well. Kristen Stewart masters the accent and mannerisms of the People’s Princess, certainly, but this is more than an impression – this is a performance. Some of the credit goes to the supporting cast, particularly Jack Farthing’s minimal yet ghoulish Prince Charles, but this is Stewart’s film as much as it is Larraín’s. For a film with such a sense of scale in terms of location and amount of extras, its narrow focus on Stewart’s Diana feels as if we’re admiring a perfect jewel under a looking glass. Every facet is on display, and each one is sparkling.
But what sparkles most is how Spencer ends. Glaringly and daringly, the film ends on a note of happiness for Diana. Spencer sticks to its in-film time frame of three days, choosing to neither look back on the past nor toward the future. Instead, we reside in the present of this one simple moment between a mother and her sons.