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In 'Spencer,' Kristen Stewart's Princess Diana grasps for reality in order to survive

Kristen Stewart plays Diana in a very different vision of an imagined moment in her life.
Pablo Larraín
Kristen Stewart plays Diana in a very different vision of an imagined moment in her life.

Pablo Larraín's Spencer opens with a label that reads, "A fable from a true tragedy." The tragedy, of course, is the story of Diana Spencer, who became Princess of Wales, went through a bitter and public divorce, was largely beloved nevertheless, and lived a short life — at 36, she was literally chased to her death. The fable, on the other hand, is an imagining of a Christmas weekend in the early '90s when her children were young, when a separated but not yet divorced Diana realizes the depth of her own despair and decides to pursue her freedom.

It seems only fair that a woman like Diana, so eagerly drawn by pop culture and so damaged by the ravenous interest in her, would get a chance to be seen through different cinematic lenses. The stage musical about her life that recently debuted on Netflix fails in part because it feels devoid of ideas and perspective, like a filmed Wikipedia page that runs down a checklist of events in her life. Spencer, instead, makes the reasonable assumption that the vast majority of its audience already knows how Diana fit into the family, how she was publicly perceived, how she died, how she was treated. Details are not fussed over or explained: Camilla Parker-Bowles looms large over this story but is not named, because Larraín and Knight assume you know her, you know at least the vague outlines of her history with Charles, and you know how things turned out.

The most obvious precursor to Spencer is Larraín's Jackie, which also studied a few crucial days in the life of one of the world's most famous women: in that case, young Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of the death of her husband. But while the films share a fondness for footage of women who feel and look lost in enormous, grand spaces, Spencer -- written by Steven Knight — is far less bounded by efforts to be faithful to, or even recreate, reality. Even if Jackie faithfully recreates reality mostly in order to imbue it with unexpected elements of horror or irony (as when Kennedy wanders around hearing "Camelot"), it is careful to make Natalie Portman sound precisely like Kennedy and to have its footage of the White House Christmas tour look precisely as it actually did. It also adopts quite a conventional structure and framing device in the form of a journalist coming to interview Kennedy about these events later.

Spencer is, from that opening title, much more unconventional and almost entirely uninterested in the historical accuracy of any of its details; it is intentionally not real, intentionally a "fable." Other than the roughest outlines of Diana's marriage and the cast of royals who surround her, there's little reason to believe this story is literally true; it is instead meant to feel true, to say something true, and to change the angle through which Diana is seen, from a storybook princess to something closer to a Gothic horror heroine struggling to hang on to her grip on reality as her world tilts. And rather than the interview conceit that Jackie is built around, Spencer opens with a long, beautifully shot, and initially baffling sequence that communicates just how disconnected from a regular person's reality Diana's Christmas weekend is actually going to be.

Reality begins to tilt

We meet Diana, played beautifully by Kristen Stewart, as she drives herself to the Sandringham estate where the royal festivities happen every year. She gets lost and is therefore late, and arriving after the Queen means that she begins the weekend already having erred, already being — as she sees it — in trouble. Confronted with scales on which she must be weighed at the beginning and end of the weekend, offered a series of pre-selected outfits she's meant to wear for everything from meals to church trips, Diana feels not merely micromanaged and limited, but instantly choked by her surroundings, even as she finds refuge in the company of her children.

But what begins as a straightforward drama begins to tilt as Diana struggles with an eating disorder, a habit of self-harm, and paranoia that the film plays with. Initially this paranoia seems unreasonable, but eventually it seems like it might just be common sense. One of the men who works for the Queen, played by Timothy Spall, is a terrifyingly cold figure who seems to be everywhere at once, and who could have walked directly out of a horror novel that will eventually reveal that he maintains a torture room.

The dread around the story only grows, especially when Diana finds that someone has left a book about Anne Boleyn in her room. She sees parallels between herself and another royal wife who fell out of favor, and clings to her only friend, a dresser named Maggie, played by Sally Hawkins. Maggie's presence and absence affect Diana's sense of safety, both physically and emotionally.

Seeing a different Princess

Diana has so often been seen in popular culture as either a perfect princess or a tragic victim; here, she is a woman trying to be proactive in her own survival, much like the "final girl" in any horror film must be. And while the other royals do speak — there is one fascinating scene between Charles and Diana that beautifully positions them as strategic opponents — they don't do so very often. They mostly hover, they move in and out of frame, and they are often out of focus and effectively anonymous on an individual level. Their personhood isn't terribly relevant to Diana by this point in her life; they exist as monsters, or at least as threats. They play the role of ghosts or whistling winds here, more than as characters with whom she interacts.

It's not even just Gothic horror that Larraín seems to be referencing, though; echoes shift throughout. There is — and honestly, there also was in Jackie — a bit of The Shining, here in the way Diana seems at times to be lost in the long corridors of the house, seeing things that might not actually be there, feeling that her mere presence is sapping her of sanity. There's some of the stiffness of upstairs-downstairs royal tales. There's even a bit of the '70s paranoid thriller and the '90s trenchcoat thriller: Spall is part horror, yes, but he's also part ominous company man, like the one who lingers at the edges of most John Grisham books, making grave pronouncements about what might happen to those who go against power. A scene in which he warns Diana while out on the grounds of the estate looks a lot like scenes in which FBI agents or mysterious operatives walk around the National Mall with their collars pulled up, telling people not to talk.

The design does great work here — the grand halls, the spooky beauty, the dated outfits and familiar dresses — as does the score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood is a prolific film composer, and has a particularly deft touch with what might be called the grandly unsettling: The Master, There Will Be Blood, and particularly Phantom Thread, for which he earned an Oscar nomination. The score is sometimes traditionally orchestral, sometimes discordant and creepy, and smart about touches like jazz-inflected horns that instantly shift the mood.

Kristen Stewart's Diana

While her take on Diana's voice rang true enough to my American ear, Stewart wisely doesn't spend a lot of time physically recreating Diana with precision — with one exception. Early on, when Diana is lost, she stops at a small café to ask for directions. As she walks through the crowd, which recognizes her and stares in silent awe, Stewart briefly casts her eyes down at the floor and smiles just a bit. That moment is so very reminiscent of the real Diana that it creates a bond between actor and real person that survives even the most reality-bending moments in the story.

Her performance here is powerful, and it carries this version of Diana through such instability as a character (is she right to be afraid? is she losing her grip on reality?), but she always seems like the same person, the same good mother who doesn't know how to begin to separate herself from the life she's walked into. She is asked to do big things, grand things, genre horror things, but she never tips over into caricature.

The obvious question about any Diana project at this point is whether it has anything to add to the massive amount of cultural material about her that already exists. By the end of her life, she had told her own story in her own words quite a bit. But the point of Spencer seems to be not to reveal Diana the real person, but to treat her differently in a cinematic sense — to recast her in a different kind of movie than the ones that we've already seen. And, perhaps ironically, to use horror to imagine an ending for her that's less horrifying.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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