When it was first announced that Kristen Stewart would be playing Princess Diana I was a little nonplussed. It wasn’t because I doubted her, I have long been impressed by Stewart who quickly moved beyond Twilight with excellent performances in films like Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, Cafe Society and Personal Shopper, but it did strike me as odd casting. I also didn’t think we needed to see another Diana film after the Naomi Watts movie and so soon after Season 4 of The Crown. I didn’t change my mind on hearing it was being directed by Pablo Larraín either, even though he had done so well in bringing a similarly lionised and enigmatic female figure from recent times to the screen in Jackie. I just couldn’t see it working.
Then I saw the first trailer. This was a fairly standard montage of British aristocracy scenes; posh cars pulling up to country estates, rails of expensive dresses being rolled down corridors, curling staircases and ornate dining tables played under the strains of a boys choir. I still wasn’t on board but then, at the end, there followed a single exchange of dialogue. ‘They know everything.’ says Sally Hawkins, ‘They don’t.’ replies Kristen Stewart. It was with those last two words, spoken perfectly in Diana’s famous breathy plum tones coming out of Bella Swan’s mouth, that I changed my mind. Sometimes you see a moment in the promos that lets you know that a performance, if not the whole film, is going to be really special. I got it with Anne Hathaway in the trailer for Les Miserables and with Alicia Vikander in one for The Danish Girl and sure enough both of those actors went on to win Oscars. I called it then, just with that three second clip; Kristen Stewart is soon to have the words ‘Academy Award Winner’ put ahead of her name as well.
Now that I have seen the whole of Spencer, prompted by this and the positive festival chatter, I am even more sure of this. She has, I have said, already shown herself to be a gifted actor but here she is astonishing. It isn’t only the voice, she has the same soulful eyes and hesitating mannerisms. Stewart has captured Princess Diana in the same way Renée Zellweger did Judy Garland, not as a caricature or an impression but through disappearing into her personality. Zellweger, you’ll recall, won the Oscar too.
Of course it isn’t enough just to emulate someone. The Diana portrayed here is struggling with three days spent over Christmas at Sandringham in 1991 and the emotion and pain this causes is in every second of Stewart’s almost unbroken time on screen. Larraín’s film focuses so intently on her, in fact, that the rest of the Royal family get barely a line between them. They register, especially the Queen, but they are in the background; oppressively and constantly in the background but in the background nonetheless. Andrew, Sarah, Edward and Phillip are effectively just silent people round the table. It isn’t about them.
None of the family are really demonised either despite this being about Diana’s slow disintegration caused by her relation to them. The conflict comes in their expectation and her reluctance to abide by cold tradition but they are all trapped in the same institution. It is just that they, mostly being born into it, have accepted and learned to live with it and think she should do the same. Charles doesn’t come across well but even he is a victim of his situation.
In terms of how much of what goes on we can believe, for me it doesn’t matter. This is even less of a historical documentary than Netflix’s royal drama show. There are some accepted facts that underpin events but there is also much that is demonstrably fantasy and the line between these could effectively be anywhere. You can’t separate what you know of the real people involved, especially Diana and doing so would deny her her legacy and voice. Even in this context Spencer is, more than anything, a powerful and gripping portrait of a woman stuck in the past because she is afraid of her future. Knowing her journey before and after the three days depicted here does add to the emotion of the narrative and you can’t escape from her fate anymore than she could (you need to know is that 1992 is the year she divorced Charles and six years before she died) but Spencer is almost bigger than Diana in that it has a reach beyond only her story. As a piece of cinema it does not rely on her history and this is probably why it succeeds where every other film about her fails. That and the fact that it is beautiful and heartbreaking, sweet and saddening and incredibly moving.
Certainly for me, my connection with Spencer was as a film rather than as a portrait of the lady (Lady) herself. The direction, the script and that performance are masterful and for a movie that I initially thought I wouldn’t be that into, I was actually blown away by it.
The Ripley Factor:
There is no denying that Diana is one of recent history’s most significant female figures and while she was a victim in many respects she was also a hero and an inspiration. There is a reference to land mines here and a nod to the charity work but the concentration is on her strength as a betrayed wife and her power as a committed mother, both of which are inspiring in themselves and in keeping with the portrait of her as a woman not an icon.