Kristen Stewart may always be best known for playing Bella Swan, the young woman who fell in love with a vampire, in the “Twilight” series but if that lifestyle choice seemed scary, it has nothing on the atmosphere of dread in her new movie. “Spencer,” a new impressionistic biopic of Lady Diana (born Diana Spencer) and now playing in theatres, sees her embroiled in a tale of real-life Gothic horror.
It’s Christmas, 1991 at Sandringham House, one of Queen Elizabeth’s country homes. The Royal Family has assembled for their annual holiday celebrations, complete with protocols, paparazzi, strange Royal traditions, disapproving looks, a ghost and the prying eyes of as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall). Despite being surrounded by people, including husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), she feels alone except for her lone confidant is Maggie (Sally Hawkins), her tailor and best friend.
It is, as a title card tells us, a “fable based on a real tragedy,” and over the course of almost two hours we experience Diana’s life years after the fairy tale wedding. Her marriage is crumbling, a she’s battling an eating disorder and the gap between perception of her private life and public persona is widening.
That Sandringham is located next to Park House, the home she grew up in and harbors many happy memories about, only deepens the wellspring of sorrow she feels as her life spins out of control.
“Spencer” is a portrait of the Princess of Wales at her most vulnerable and isolated but it never feels as though it is exploiting Diana. The director, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín, working from a script by “Eastern Promises” writer Steven Knight, doesn’t turn her life into a pity party. The character is having a rough time equating her life, and the future of her children, with the reality of her situation and yet she perseveres. In the moments away from the protocols of royal life—mommy time with William and Harry or on a trip to the beach with Maggie—the veil lifts and she becomes Diana Spencer, able to leave the titles and tradition in the dust.
Stewart nails the voice and mannerisms but doesn’t try to imitate Diana, one of the world’s best-known people. Instead, she reaches deep to delicately create a portrait of a person riddled with anxiety at a crossroads in her life. Stewart, whose own experiences with an intrusive press and paparazzi have been well documented, brings that lived experience to the film. Stewart’s face during a photocall scene outside a church says it all, expertly showing the mix of duty and terror Diana must have felt toward the press who hounded her.
“Spencer” is a heightened look at Diana’s life, but it’s not all Sturm und Drang. The script is laced with Diana’s sarcastic sense of humour and the beautiful cinematography provides a somewhat serene backdrop to the cooly chaotic action. But make no mistake, the story’s underlying tension, despite a rather joyous finale, has more to do with a psychological horror film than a traditional biopic.