Kristen Stewart stars as an anguished, rebellious Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s answer to “The Crown.”
“Spencer” is a Christmas movie, in which a big, dysfunctional family gathers at the holiday to feast, exchange gifts and engage in peculiar traditions meant to provide “a bit of fun.”
“Spencer” is a horror movie about a fragile woman held captive in a spooky mansion, tormented by sadistic monsters and their treacherous minions.
“Spencer” is a psychological thriller about a powerful, unaccountable authoritarian cabal conspiring to crush the spirit of an independent-minded rebel.
“Spencer” is a love story, a melodrama of maternal devotion, an early-’90s fashion parade and a very British baking show. (The scones and pastries are organic.)
“Spencer,” described by its director, Pablo Larraín, as “a fable from a true tragedy,” is all of the above, and also a fact-inspired drama about Diana, Princess of Wales, played with grit and grace by Kristen Stewart. Diana, who died in a car crash in 1997 — and whose maiden name gives Larraín’s film its title — is hardly an obscure figure. A global celebrity and tabloid fixture in her lifetime, she remains somehow irresistible.
Her troubled marriage to Prince Charles and her vexed relations with her royal in-laws have been subject to scrutiny from every angle, most recently in “The Crown,” where she was played in the last season by Emma Corrin. (In the next one, Elizabeth Debicki will take up the role.) A superficial reading of “Spencer,” which takes place over three days (from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day) in 1991, might see it as a sidebar to “The Crown,” lingering over a minor episode in a vast epic and isolating a single, relatively minor character amid the pomp and pageantry of palace life.
That is exactly wrong. Larraín and the screenwriter, Steven Knight, offer not a footnote but an ardent and unsparing rebuke to the mythical monarchist mumbo-jumbo that the Netflix series (to which I am entirely addicted) exists to promote. The conceit of “The Crown” is that, for all their flaws, defeats and compromises — or because of all that — the members of the House of Windsor are fundamentally more interesting than anybody else. Their dilemmas are more exquisite, their choices more tragic, than anything the commoners can know.
This is a persistent conceit in the literature of power, one that Larraín, wielding his camera like a rapier and Jonny Greenwood’s lacerating score like a stiletto, leaves in tatters. The only members of the royal family whose voices are heard in “Spencer” are Charles (Jack Farthing) and his mother (Stella Gonet). Queen Elizabeth is as bland and cold as a dish of old porridge. Her eldest son, at least with Diana, is callous and cruel, mocking her eating disorder and lecturing her on the necessity of keeping up appearances.
“There have to be two of you,” he says — one for “the people” and one in private. (Like much of Knight’s script, these lines explain things a little too bluntly.) But one of the reasons Diana was called “the people’s princess” was that she seemed always and authentically herself, an idea that Larraín, Knight and Stewart implicitly endorse. She’s devoted to “what’s real,” and describes her tastes and interests, in a flawless aristocratic accent, as “middle class.” Fast food. Musical theater. Driving her European sports car instead of being chauffeured in a Rolls-Royce.
She wants to be herself, and she wants to be free. Larraín, who is Chilean, has made a handful of tough, unsettling films about life in his country under a military dictatorship determined to control the thought and behavior of its subjects. While “Spencer” hardly equates Queen Elizabeth with Pinochet, the power that the crown exerts over Diana can accurately be described as totalitarian.
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Preparations for Christmas at Sandringham House — a moated mansion near the Norfolk coast — have the character of a military operation. Groceries are delivered by armed soldiers, and the chief of the kitchen “brigade” (Sean Harris) is like a field commander. (He’s also one of the few people in the castle who treats Diana with kindness.) Everything is scheduled down to the minute: sandwiches, meals, hunting parties. Diana is instructed on which outfit she must wear for each activity.
The dresses are tagged “P.O.W.” It stands for “Princess of Wales,” of course. Still, Diana, in the midst of marital combat with Charles (who is having an affair with a briefly glimpsed, never named Camilla Parker-Bowles), is very much a prisoner. She glides through empty corridors and chambers under constant surveillance. Her every notion, whim and word is observed and reported. She is entirely alone, with no real privacy or solitude. Her only comfort is the company of her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry).
“Spencer” is, finally, a study in the psychological effects of captivity. Diana, fragile when she arrives at Sandringham — and the subject of much “concern” from the Windsors, spirals toward a breakdown over the next 72 hours. She hallucinates the ghost of Anne Boleyn, pierces the skin on her arm with a wire-cutter and acts out in ways that alarm her children and disgust the prince.
Watching over her with sympathy — though not necessarily on her side — are two members of the royal staff. Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) tries to reason her into compliance, at one point telling a hair-raising story about his military service that is apparently meant to emphasize the importance of duty. Diana’s favorite dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), is a more steadfast ally, a sympathetic ear and then something more.
“Spencer” is a companion piece to “Jackie,” Larraín’s 2016 film about Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Both movies examine the isolation and paranoia of a woman at the mercy of political forces and family interests beyond her control, and turn on the heroine’s attempt at resistance. “Spencer” seems to me the more coherent film, partly because the directness of Stewart’s performance stands out so poignantly against the moral vacuity and aesthetic constipation of her surroundings.
Stewart leverages her own star power to turn Diana into someone familiar. The intimacy and care the character craves is something the audience feels compelled to supply. Our sympathy is more than pity, and “Spencer” is more than the portrait of a woman in distress. If it’s a fable, it’s a political fable, an allegory of powerlessness, revolt and liberation.
Rated R. Not a fairy tale. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. In theaters.