Spencer review: Kristen Stewart dazzles in unconventional Princess Diana biopic
In an enormous, pristine, mostly unadorned kitchen, a sign on the wall warns the assembled staff: "Keep noise to a minimum. They can hear you."
The room is the kitchen at Sandringham House; the "they" is the British royal family, gathered at the English country estate for Christmas in the early '90s. The sign appears early in Pablo Larraín's Spencer, in which it might be more to the point for it to read not that they can hear you, but that they're always listening. The film's versions of Elizabeth II & Co. don't really hear anyone — however much a person cries out who they are or what they need — and least heard of all is Kristen Stewart's Princess Diana, from whose tortured perspective the defiantly eccentric biopic unravels.
A fictionalized account of a fraught holiday wherein Diana (née Spencer) decides to break with her high-profile husband, the film chronicles three days' worth of torment in the form of humiliating rituals, stiffly formal meals, and countless pre-assigned wardrobe changes. Sandringham is huge, but Larraín renders it deeply claustrophobic (with an expert assist from Jonny Greenwood's unnerving score), with various diverse reminders that they can hear you should you deviate from their script. As the walls of the country house seem to close in, the avenues for escape — or even just a little rebellion — become ever narrower; sometimes all she can do is wear the Boxing Day dress for Christmas breakfast, unless it was the Christmas Eve dinner dress for Christmas church.
The film is dense with poetic motifs, many bleeding into the iconography of royalty itself — fairy tales, currency, ancient families (including Diana's own; she famously had more "royal blood" than Charles does). Larraín opens the movie with the ominous intertitle: "A fable from a true tragedy," and the action is haunted not only by the painful awareness of the people's princess' eventual untimely end, but also by the actual ghost of Anne Boleyn. Diana darkly identifies with Henry VIII's second wife, becoming fixated on the dark fate of her fellow scorned royal-by-marriage. Like another English Christmas ghost story, Spencer is preoccupied with the past, present, and future: At Sandringham, Diana drily tells her sons, time doesn't exist across all three tenses — there is no future, and past and present are made one.
It's the scenes with little William and Harry that give the admittedly strange film some kind of anchor. Stewart, typically a picture of California cool herself, emanates such palpable warmth in the conspiratorial moments Diana shares with her children that the world of the movie temporarily transforms. The frozen prison of a castle — she repeatedly complains that she wishes the staff would turn up the heating — becomes cozy when Diana's capacity for love, which melted hearts the world over but failed to touch the icy family she married into, is given a purpose in the sons to whom she was so devoted.
For all of Larraín's artistry, Spencer would crumble in the hands of the wrong actress, and Stewart gives one of the best performances of her career so far as this highly subjective version of Diana. Physically, she's the perfect almost-match; not so unlike the princess that it's distracting to see her in the role, but not such a vivid doppelganger that her image seems to claim total verisimilitude for the film as a whole. She's Diana, but ever-so-slightly off, in such a way that an audience can simultaneously buy into and detach from Larraín's imagined royal nightmare.
Jacqueline Durran's immaculate wardrobe, in collaboration with Claire Mathon's arresting cinematography, cleverly collaborate to make the actress appear longer (Diana was five inches taller than the woman playing her), and Stewart's prim posture, shy tilt of her head, and sighing accent are unmistakable — as is the greatness of her devastatingly hopeful performance. Gentle though she keeps her voice, she makes you really hear her. Grade: A-
Kristen Stewart transforms into Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín's chronicle of the end of the royal's marriage to Prince Charles.