Kristen Stewart takes on Princess Diana in fable of tragedy, 'Spencer'

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

The swooningly surreal biopic-as-body-horror film “Spencer” is the second installment in Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s presumptive trilogy of doomed princesses, following his 2016 film, “Jackie.” Kristen Stewart slips into the feathered bob and posh accent of the late Princess Diana in the film, which takes place over a particularly hellish Christmas holiday at Sandringham House, during a point of inflection in her troubled marriage to Prince Charles.

Both “Jackie” and “Spencer” are films about women caught in impossible prisons created by systems of power and celebrity; mediated, bureaucratic, legal panopticons that infiltrate their most intimate spaces. Within these labyrinths, Larrain tries to find the human being behind the iconic image, and his cinematic tributes are crafted like finely woven tapestries, every thread a part of the story.

These films are almost camp, because the images and names of these women are so well-known, divorced from the human beings behind them, and the uncanny performances and melodramatic scores create a sense of heightened reality. Larrain and “Spencer” screenwriter Steven Knight lean into the unreal and the surreal, crafting an imagined portrait of Diana’s feverish state of mind at this moment, and present the film as “a fable from a true tragedy.”

Kristen Stewart stars in "Spencer." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester.

“Spencer” is a film of food and fashion, but here, food and fashion are not signifiers of luxury but tools of royal theater, of state performance and control (as they always have been). Ultimately, food and fashion are means of torture for the highly visible Diana, an object of paparazzi fascination, flattened into an image. She laments the idea of her visage eventually engraved on currency, though it’s obvious she is already currency in the media.

The royal family attempts to control that image with a highly codified wardrobe (ironically, each gown is labeled “P.O.W.” for “Princess of Wales,” but calls to mind “Prisoner of War”), but Diana’s appearance is also the locus of her tiny rebellions, whether seemingly silly (switching the assigned outfits) or self-destructive (bulimia and self-harm). Her body becomes the battleground for waging war.

Diana’s closest confidants are her dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and the Sandringham chef, Darren (Sean Harris). She’s only able to converse with the servants of Sandringham, not the residents, but she resists the clothing and food with which they coax her. A military officer, Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), has been tasked with keeping an eye on her over the weekend, and his solemn watchfulness torments Diana from the moment she arrives, from requiring a customary Christmas weigh-in to quietly observing her midnight binges in the kitchen.

The oppressive atmosphere of constant scrutiny drives Diana further into a paranoid state of mind, fueled by a biography of Anne Boleyn, which has been placed in her bedroom, as well as a pearl necklace given as a Christmas gift from Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). The necklace becomes Diana’s bete noire. Not only is it the same one that he gave the (unnamed) Camilla, it becomes the collar from which Diana must free herself, lest she lose her head altogether.

The metaphors in Knight’s script are not subtle in the least, but as promised, “Spencer” is a fable, and metaphors are rarely subtle in fables and fairy tales of princesses trapped inside castles. Larrain doesn’t seem interested in subtlety anyway, as Jonny Greenwood’s score swoops from classical string music to abstract jazz horns and back again. Stewart is perfect as the angsty, tortured Diana, carefully captured by Claire Mathon’s camera, bathed in cold English light. When Diana finally makes her jailbreak in a sweetly imagined escape with her boys, the rush of freedom is utterly intoxicating.

‘SPENCER’

3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for some language)

Running time: 1:51