Continuing her recent streak of daring, indelible performances, Kristen Stewart in Spencer, is a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Or maybe she’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Her take on Princess Diana, imagined here by Jackie director Pablo Larrain, makes an impression either way.
As the film opens, it’s Christmas 1991 and the Princess of Wales is driving through the Norfolk countryside to join Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and her young sons (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry) at the royal estate at Sandringham. Diana has slipped away from her minders and is driving herself, but she’s lost, which puzzles her since she grew up at Park House, the Spencer family estate. Adjacent to Sandringham, the house now sits abandoned and boarded-up, like a relic of war. Its presence will be a constant draw for Diana, who will eventually sneak off for a late night visit and private moment of reckoning.
In real life, the Spencer estate had been donated to a national charity years earlier, but Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) deploy it here as a metaphor for Diana’s decaying sense of self-worth. Ten years with Charles and his family, whose collective gaze grows colder and more disapproving with each passing day, has worn Diana to a nub. She’s bulimic and Charles and the family know it, and yet, only the servants are concerned. The head chef (Sean Harris), continually prepares her favorite foods, hoping against hope that she’ll take a few bites. When she fails to do so, his heartbreak is palpable.
More phantasmagoria than biopic, Spencer is constantly shifting between present and past, actuality and fever dream. For Christmas, Charles has gifted Diana with a set of pearls which she knows to be identical to the set he just gave to his true love, Camilla Parker Bowles. Diana dutifully wears the pearls to dinner but she hates them, and staring at Charles, staring at her, she feels as if they’re choking her. She grows red and frantically itchy as if she’s broken out in hives but maybe that’s just the resplendent red table flowers reflecting against her skin. Panicked, Diana snaps the necklace and the pearls drop into her soup. Which she calmly proceeds to eat, pearls included.
This all may be happening. Or it may not. Either way, it’s very real to Diana.
The pearls figure large into Diana’s three day descent into the maelstrom, as does a tattered jacket on a scarecrow in the Spencer family field and the ghost of Anne Boleyn, Henry the VIII’s wife, who was beheaded to make way for a new wife. Scarecrows, ghosts and a dilapidated English manor make for more atmosphere than one movie can bear, and indeed, Spencer often feels like the byproduct of an overeager (unproduced) young playwright, but Stewart and her fellow actors continually pull the film back to center.
As in Diana’s life, no doubt, the film’s grace notes come when she’s talking one-on-one with William and Harry or with a servant. The ever brilliant Sally Hawkins plays Diana’s favorite dresser, Maggie, and late in the film, the two sit on the beach, talking and relishing the simple fact of not being inside that oppressive house. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Maggie reveals something about herself so unexpectedly personal, and so completely lovely that Diana breaks out laughing.
Here is Diana’s friend, telling her something truly true, and something as real as the ocean that lies before them. It feels like a life-saving gesture and as played by Stewart, Diana seems to know it. Anne Bolyen the movie ghost will fade from memory, blessedly, but Diana and Maggie’s sweet seaside laughter will echo for a long time to come.