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Kristen Stewart in a clunky jacket and huge tulle skirt, seen from a long distance and outlined against a window in Spencer Photo: Pablo Lorrain/Neon

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The Kristen Stewart movie Spencer is more real-life horror story than Princess Di biopic

It’s more about haunting impressions and emotions than specific history

This Spencer review was originally published in conjunction with the film’s screening at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated for the film’s theatrical release on Nov. 5.

The Princess Diana biopic Spencer isn’t your prototypical biographical film. Then again, the film’s director, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín, isn’t known for making familiar biopics, either. His depictions of Jackie Kennedy’s life after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Jackie, and poet Pablo Neruda on the run from new Chilean president Gabriel González Videla in Neruda, are raw, unflinching films that focus closely on a specific moment in their subjects’ lives.

Likewise with Spencer, Larraín doesn’t provide the expected Princess Diana story. There’s no courtship or fairy-tale wedding, à la The Crown. It doesn’t chart her life from being a newborn fated for greater heights. Nor does it affix her as a predictably doomed victim. Instead, Spencer takes place during a Christmas weekend in 1991, at the Queen’s Sandringham estate. Diana (Kristen Stewart) is still in a fraught marriage with Prince Charles (a cold Jack Farthing), or at least partially. During her stay, Diana contends with her role as a mother to her two sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), and faces her eating disorder, her family’s history, and the domineering men who script her daily life.

Opening with a title card reading “A fable from a true story,” Larraín’s film isn’t based on a wholly true event. Nor does it want to tell Diana’s life story. Spencer is an act of psychological horror, a kind of ghost story, and a survivalist picture carried by an uncannily immersive Kristen Stewart, in the best performance of her career.

Stephen Knight’s script doesn’t bang viewers over the head with the media-constructed people’s princess mythos. Knight and Larraín are too smart to use such easy tools. Instead, they find subtler ways to weave her legend into a realistic narrative. Spencer opens with Diana, without a chauffeur or bodyguard, driving herself to Sandringham House. The confident royal loses her way, ultimately deciding to stop to ask for directions. In front of normal folks, she assumes a shy, somewhat vulnerable disposition. Her eyes swing skyward as her head tilts to the side. The scene is the first contour in Stewart’s layered portrayal of her: the differences between the private princess and the public-facing one.

This is a biopic acutely concerned with parsing Diana’s psychology, and specifically, her many demons. But not in a salacious way. While heading to Sandringham Estate, she sees a scarecrow standing in the middle of a field, wearing her father’s red coat. (In real life, her father, John Spencer, died three months after that Christmas, of a heart attack.) She goes to retrieve the outerwear, hoping to have it cleaned. Diana grew up on the Queen’s estate in Park House, making her journey to the Christmas festivities both a heartening homecoming and an unfortunate duty, causing a wellspring of grief to affect her in varying fashions.

Diana also connects with her ancestry in the film. Equerry Major Gregory (a punchable Timothy Spall), a craggy Scottish war veteran who now narcs for the Queen, pesters Diana to conform to tradition. One “game” has visitors weigh themselves at the beginning on arrival, to see who gains the most weight over the holidays. This tradition causes Diana’s insecurities with her weight to bubble to the surface. And after she finds a book about Anne Boleyn on her bed, possibly placed there by Major Gregory, she dreams of the distant relative, the second wife of Henry VIII, who was beheaded after he falsely accused her of adultery. Between the coat and the spirit of Anne Boleyn, Diana is drawn toward her now-condemned childhood home.

Who can blame Diana for feeling locked-in? Other than her tailor and best friend Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and the estate’s sympathetic chef Darren (Sean Harris), she’s pretty much isolated. But once again, Larraín is too smart to limit Spencer to honing in on Diana’s relationship with the other royals around her, or even her relationship with Charles and his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles. Instead, he pulls focus by depicting how Diana is trying to protect her sons from the royals’ archaic, closed-off traditions. But in the face of domineering men like Charles and Major Gregory, along with the unbending protocol of the estate and her eating disorder, she can barely protect herself. The mania she feels makes her Christmas holiday more of a fight for survival than a getaway.

Jonny Greenwood’s score opens as classically British, then morphs into an unnerving symphony. Following a similar aesthetic to Jackie, cinematographer Claire Mathon (Atlantics, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) captures Diana with intrusive close-ups, her lens peering over the princess’ heart-rending facial expressions. Mathon also takes great interest in the disturbingly manicured features of the estate: the uniform garden, the exacting movements by the austere servants, and the meticulously prepared food and clothes, which contrast with Diana’s freefall. Meanwhile, the costume work by the legendary Jacqueline Durran covers a greatest-hits of Diana’s best-known outfits, with an evocative array of fashions that often speaks toward her mental state.

Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) sits on the floor between two beds with her children William and Harry in Spencer Photo: Neon

But Stewart’s absolutely outstanding performance is what pulls together Diana’s lore and Larraín’s conception of her, creating a fleshed-out version of the princess that isn’t reliant on broad or showy instincts. Stewart folds in her body to actualize Diana’s nervousness, tips her head in a familiar way, and gets the princess’ voice pitch-perfect. But beyond that, her performance comes down to the eyes. Stewart’s eyes swing like switchblades through the grass. And each glance claims another victim, displaying either a kind of forlornness or a shyness, depending on the situation. It’s her eyes that jump her over the line of performance to a totally lived-in aura. There’s never a moment where it’s Kristen Stewart as Diana. She is Diana.

The film has two climaxes, and one comes when Diana finally makes it back to her childhood home. She’s frantic and hallucinating, and Mathon’s camera closes even more perilously into her. This is where Jackie editor Sebastián Sepúlveda shines, providing a vivid and haunting montage of her life leading up to the moment. The other climax flips the tenor of the film from grim to celebratory. Considering the gloominess of the film, and how deep into despair it descends, the quick upshot toward revelry should feel maudlin, almost like Larraín is cheating against history. But it works, because the director knows the audience has an inherent desire for Diana to have a happy ending.

In that sense, Larraín’s Spencer, an inspired portrait of the princess’ life that’s more concerned with finding new truths in her public and private persona than following the familiar beats of her life, isn’t the classic biopic audiences are used to watching. But it is the inventive, iconoclastic film Diana deserves.

Spencer will arrive in American theaters on Nov. 5, 2021.