Chilean Director Pablo Larrain’s ability to portray the sorrow of tragic and well-known women was first revealed to audiences with 2016’s Jackie, about the unfortunate First Lady whose blood-stained pink dress seared her into our collective consciousness about tragedy. This year, Larrain has upped the ante by returning to the topic with a more modern and arguably more recognizable figure for today’s audiences—Lady Diana (née Spencer).
In his latest film, Spencer, caught at the Telluride Film Festival, Larrain imagines, through Steven Knight’s imaginative script, what Diana’s last Christmas with the royals may have been like. To do so, he enlists the help of Kristen Stewart, a mega-star who has more than come into her own as an acting superpower and whose immersive embodiment of the doomed Princess places her squarely in the middle of awards conversation this season.
When Spencer begins, the haughty royals are preparing an extravagant but tasteful holiday season spanning from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, which they will spend at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. This much of the story is true to life, but, beyond those few seconds of realism, Spencer quickly and very obviously becomes a fairy tale of sorts, or perhaps even a ghost story. Diana is driving herself to the proceedings, late, disinterested, suffering. She is lost, so she stops at a diner for directions—turning the heads of the local peasant folk. She stops again, this time to dispossess a scarecrow in the middle of a vast field of his tattered red coat. None of this is subtle or, arguably, even needed—even the uninitiated surely know that Diana was immensely popular and also a bit eccentric. Knight’s and Larrain’s inability to resist hitting you over the head with it is the one dent in this film’s otherwise fine armor.
Diana eventually arrives (late — worth mentioning again, given the gravity of that offense to Britons, particularly royal ones). She is greeted by a stern equerry, Major Gregory, played by an even sterner Timothy Spall. She must be weighed—it’s a Windsor family tradition—to ensure she has gained the requisite three pounds by the end of the festivities. Whether this is true to life or not, your prying, googling minds will tell me, but suffice it to say that it becomes clear early on whose side of this ultimately bloody royal dispute the filmmakers are on.
Soon, though, the childish demeanor of the royals, Diana’s exaggerated insouciance, somehow recedes into the background. What captivates you, almost immediately, is the uncanny resemblance between Ms. Stewart—who looks absolutely nothing like Princess Diana—and the real deal. Call it the magic of the movies, or, more likely, the yet again magical work of two-time Academy Award-winning Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran. Stewart and Durran, with the aide of makeup and hairstylist Yakana Yoshihara (Murder On The Orient Express), can never fully convince you that you are not watching a performance, but they do convince you that you are watching the best ever yet such portrayal of the oft-staged Princess.
As the movie progresses, your admiration for Stewart’s performance will grow. Diana spends most of her holidays alone, roaming the estate grounds, the kitchen, the bathroom, the hallways. She does everything she can to avoid the dreaded, stuffy dinners, the unwanted hunting trips, the malicious scolding and stares she expects at tea or during dessert. Most of her interactions are with Major Gregory and with her official dresser Maggie (an underused Sally Hawkins), to whom she expresses her unhappiness and deepening depression, or with her two young boys, to whom she shows her unhappiness and deepening depression with every move. Larrain imagines that Diana spent this fateful weekend—when she had made clear her intent to divorce and perhaps destroy the Royal family—reading the biography of another ill-fated royal, Anne Boleyn. Again, not subtle, but Diana is both so well-known and yet so mysterious that at the end of it all, one sort of admires Larrain’s vivid and somehow entirely plausible imagination.
As Diana continues to amble about the castle that Production Designer Guy Hendrix Dyas expertly reconstructed—sometimes floating, sometimes stumbling—the movie achieves its clearly desired effect. To feel, against your better instincts that notice her lavish gowns and boundless riches, a tremendous amount of sympathy and even pity for the woman. Despite her at times cool demeanor, she has a deep love for her sons, and an even deeper desire to escape the pit of her own darkness. But the royal gravity is too strong, the demands, whether conveyed through Gregory or by the Queen herself (here, played by Stella Gonet), are too magnetic.
And it always comes back to Stewart and to the tremendous assist she is given by Durran, who very well could be on track to pick up her third statuette. Ms. Stewart is, in a word, regal. Her beauty is sharper and perhaps even slimmer than the real Diana’s, but her look is identically pensive, moody, and forlorn. The wistfulness in her demeanor is so sincere and so persuasive that just by looking at her, you may be moved to tears. It is a physical performance through and through, one punctuated by Ms. Stewart’s trademarked writhing of the neck and tilting of the head. It is almost as she is squirming for her sanity while being driven insane by her suffering. And, because she does every one of these things with one or the other of the most recognizable dresses in Diana’s wardrobe, it really is just that much more convincing.
To all of this, add a somewhat bombastic but also tormented score by Jonny Greenwood, and the end result is another convincing and melancholic portrayal by Larrain of a woman widely believe to be both strong but feeble, determined but lost at sea. Who knows if any of this actually happened—strike that, a trip to KFC will make it clear that it probably didn’t. What matters is that Larrain combines such perfection in acting and story-rendering by his talented crew that by the time the Spencer credits roll, you will not only think it could have happened—you’ll desperately want to believe that it did.
After premiering at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, Spencer will be released by NEON theatrically on November 5.
All photos courtesy NEON.