Kristen Stewart is about a half-foot shorter than Princess Diana was and doesn’t really look like her, and it’s a daunting task to play one of the most famous and most photographed and recorded figures of the 20th century — which makes Stewart’s career-best, nomination-worthy, heartbreakingly effective performance in Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer” all the more impressive.
As Lorrain did with “Jackie” (with Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy) in 2016, he has created a truth-inspired but largely fictional biographical fable centering on just a few days in the life of a beautiful and intelligent young woman who was raised in privilege and relative anonymity but saw her life catapulted into a mad frenzy of international fame and controversy after marrying into a greatly esteemed and generationally powerful family.
With “Spencer,” the story takes place in 1991 over a three-day Christmas weekend at Sandringham Estate, the obscenely large country estate of Queen Elizabeth II that sits on some 20,000 acres on the Norfolk Coast. It’s an entire community of its own, staffed by private security, dozens of kitchen workers, untold numbers of maids and dressers and aides-de-this-and-that. Yet the staffers are constantly told to keep quiet and to remain essentially invisible, and from the moment Diana arrives (late, per usual, to the irritation of the royal family), it’s almost as if she’s on the property alone, as she wanders through dark and cavernous hallways, sneaks around and out of the house in the middle of the night like an escaping prisoner and has visions of a ghost from the past.
At times it’s as if we’re watching Diana’s own nightmarish journey through “The Shining.” Lorrain has made a horror movie about a deeply troubled young woman who is plagued by anxiety, an eating disorder and a penchant for self-harming — all the while feeling a canyon-sized chasm between herself and her husband and her in-laws and just about everyone in the world save her two young boys and a couple of sympathetic employees, whom she considers dear friends.
With the jazzy score by Jonny Greenwood setting the tone for the cacophony of sounds in Diana’s inner world, “Spencer” is an exquisitely designed, beautifully photographed and at times hauntingly surreal story, set primarily on the estate where Diana was born — and she’ll make numerous attempts to revisit her now-shuttered childhood home before the weekend is over. From the moment Diana arrives at Sandringham, it’s clear she’s a pariah to the family; they barely speak to her, even at dinner, and nearly all communications go through various staffers, whether it be Diana’s loyal lady-in-waiting, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), or the Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (gaunt and severe-looking Timothy Spall), a former military man who is overseeing the weekend’s activities but is really there to “protect” Diana, i.e., babysit her and make sure she doesn’t embarrass herself or the family, with the prying lenses of the paparazzi waiting in the distance and the dark.
Stewart’s Diana speaks in a breathless, quietly disarming tone, her head tilted downward; she knows all eyes are on her already and she needn’t speak up to draw constant scrutiny. Often, though, she disappears, literally and figuratively, whether she’s hiding in locked bathrooms and bedrooms while everyone waits for her or disappearing into waking nightmare fantasies in which she envisions tearing a pearl necklace from her neck, dropping it into her soup and crunching down on the individual pearls—or encountering Anne Boleyn, the wife of Henry VIII, who was beheaded so the king could marry another woman.
That latter element is typical of the obviousness of the screenplay. For all of Lorrain’s sophisticated visual touches, “Spencer” is anything but subtle. On the day before a pheasant hunt, Diana talks to one of the birds, urging it to fly away before it’s too late. In an admittedly touching scene, the royal head chef (Sean Harris) is a kindly father figure who quells Diana’s fears that the staff gossips about her and says it’s quite the contrary; they’re all worried about her. Then, in the very next scene, we get another father-figure sit-down, this time with Spall’s Major Gregory telling Diana a horrific story about a comrade getting shot through the head while in mid-story, and how sacrifices are made in the name of queen and country, and Diana needs to get off the stoop and get ready for dinner, NOW. Gee, thanks for the pep talk, Major.
The Diana in “Spencer” is lost and confused and self-destructive, and clearly needs help. (Even when she’s spending relatively happy moments with her young sons William and Harry, there’s a quiet desperation about her efforts to keep them amused.) But at least she’s alive. Virtually everyone else in the royal family skulks about like the Walking Dead — barely speaking at dinner, going through the motions at Christmas service or a pheasant hunt, scarcely paying any attention to the children in the house. Sandringham is a haunted and joyless place, filled with haunted and joyless people. We’re in a time period where Diana has only about six more years on this Earth, but at least she was able to break free and hopefully experience a measure of happiness in the years after the imagined events of “Spencer.”