From the opening scene, Spencer announces itself as a sizzling slice of historical fiction. Put another way, this is an imaginative portrait of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart), painted against the backdrop of real events. While that approach does absolve the film from having to tether itself to the truth, Spencer still riffs on the same Diana story we’ve now known for decades: Basically, the Princess was a free-spirited and vivacious young woman who spent the final years of her life locked in a miserable battle of wills with an effete and exclusionary British royal family. In a different universe, Spencer could be showing us the beginning of Diana’s triumphant second act. Instead, we can only witness an intimate, bittersweet look at a woman near the beginning of her end.
The film begins, appropriately, with Diana lost along the rolling British countryside. It’s the early 90s, and she has no grasp on her place within the royal family, her importance to British society, and no clear path forward as a wife and mother. These early scenes are a ball of confusion, as Diana fumbles along in her Porsche, poring over road maps and asking starstruck locals for proper directions. As she finally stumbles into Sandringham House for the Christmas holidays, the Princess of Wales couldn’t be more bewildered or spiritually exhausted.
This emotional desolation serves as Spencer‘s focal point. The film zeroes in on Diana at her loneliest, angriest, and most vulnerable moment: On one side, the tabloid press hound her every move like snickering hyenas. Meanwhile, her in-laws detest her as a savvy progressive and social butterfly. They hire a patronizing handler (Timothy Spall) to shoo her away from the media and get her to appointments on time. Just as she desperately wants to assert more independence, the royal family couldn’t treat Diana more like a troublesome child.
Her individual interactions with her married family are icy and snobbish, almost to the point of devolving into caricature. Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is particularly patronizing and cruel. Director Pablo Larraín skillfully stages an extended scene in which Charles and Diana face off across a billiard table. He preys on her insecurities and gaslights her for his own adulteries. By the time he storms off, Charles has brought his wife a little closer to emotional rock bottom. Diana’s limited interactions with Elizabeth are also contentious: The Queen also comes across as flippant and passively hostile to her daughter-in-law. Windsor family gatherings feel so plastic and hollow, they might as well be out of a Grey Poupon commercial. I know the royals had plenty of nasty moments toward Diana, but were they this bad?
With her royal relationships on ice, the film imagines Diana turning to some unlikely sources for companionship: She finds a book on Anne Boleyn in her bedroom, and immediately strikes up a morbid kinship with Henry VIII’s doomed queen. Diana imagines Anne haunting the grounds, and speaking to her in times of crisis. She also strikes up conversations with a jacket she stole off a scarecrow. Those bizarre interactions aside, Diana forms a deep connection with Maggie (Sally Hawkins), her chief dresser. Maggie quickly becomes the Princess of Wales’ most trusted confidante and advisor.
The film also posits the common belief that Diana’s primary source of sanity was her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). As her roles as wife and future queen begin to falter, Diana clearly throws herself into being a mother. She and the boys enjoy a very meaningful bond, and her dramatic beats with them are among the strongest in the film.
On the subjection of emotional impact, nothing in Spencer really proves to be shocking, or even revelatory. My knowledge of the Windsor family is pretty shallow, and even I know that Diana spent much of her marriage in an unmanageable fog of loneliness and frustration. That’s pretty much what we see here: Diana races through ornate palace hallways, fighting some combination of bone-deep sorrow and undiluted rage. She’s also a social butterfly, but the starchy, anachronistic royals desperately want to bottle up her charismatic personality and hide it from the world.
What power Spencer can muster comes from Stewart’s startling lead performance. She nails everything about the Princess, from the look, mannerisms, accent, and–most importantly–her tragic blend of ebullience and melancholia. For all her wealth, influence, beauty, and star power, there are moments when Diana seems like the unhappiest person on Earth. Stewart brilliant conveys the slow destruction of a woman slowly being broken by the world around her. She can and should snag an Oscar nomination for her work.
In fact, Stewart dominates the entire movie. She’s in just about every scene, and we see every repulsive character through her eyes. It shouldn’t be at all surpassing that Stewart’s performance is the main reason to see this movie. You might not learn a whole lot about Princess Diana, but Stewart will make you feel more than any other take on her life.
117 min. R. On Demand.