Kristen Stewart Princess Diana Spencer

Spencer turns a voyeuristic eye on Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana

Fanfiction or wrenching melodrama? Pablo Larraín can’t decide.

A chill crystallizes the events of Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. In the opening shot, moments after an epigraph announces this is a fable based on a true story, frost covers the English countryside as a royal procession travels in the distance. Unfolding over three days during Christmas, the film depicts the unravelling of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) in the wake of her husband’s cheating. The palace is glacial, and she complains that they should turn on the heat. She wraps her arms tightly around her fragile frame, clutches tightly at the edges of her body, trying to hold it together. 

Previously, Larraín made Jackie. Similarly condensed over a handful of days, both films aim towards similar ambitions: capturing womanhood pushed to the limits of expectations, confined by the impossible demands of tradition. With close-ups often shot with wide-angle lenses, it renders the voyeurism of the gaze claustrophobic. As viewers, we feel we are seeing too much, infringing on private moments and hidden desires. Princess Diana becomes increasingly paranoid that she’s being surveilled, and the camera participates in that unrelenting watching, just another set of eyes. 

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana is in almost every shot, and every shot she’s not in, her presence weighs heavily. The people around her are worried; her unravelling is treated both as an inconvenience and a threat. Only a handful of people seem genuinely concerned for her safety. Stewart’s casting seems predicated more on the parallels between her whirlwind fame from Twilight than her ability to do the role. Not that she’s bad, but her casting has to do with real-life parallels more than her suitability for the role. This movie, far more than being about Diana herself, reflects on celebrity and how it intersects with femininity. 

Stewart’s performance is often good, occasionally outstanding. There are moments that her resemblance to the late Princess is uncanny, whereas, in others, her affectations seem to underline the artificiality of the soft, doe-eyed Princess. The greatest notes in the performance seem to come from Stewart rather than Diana. There’s a particular side-eyed glance that Stewart often does in her films that appears to contain all the secrets to the universe. It’s inviting and mysterious; it suggests power in being seen, at least on your terms.

At its most focused, Spencer plays with these ideas of seeing and being seen. Diana seems to embody the TikTok phrase, “I do not wish to be perceived,” with all the paradoxical verve of posting such a sentiment on social media. She wants to fade away and disappear, but she resents the idea that the curtains remain closed and she remains unphotographed. In one scene in the billiards room, her husband Prince Charles tells Diana that there needs to be two of her: “The real one and the one they photograph.” Diana refuses this binary, refuses to distinguish between Princess and woman and child and person. The threat she poses lies in her humanity because the rituals and chilliness of the royal temperament set them as different from the people. If that illusion crashes, so does the monarchy itself.

The emotional toll of searching for the self under impossible circumstances is that we watch Diana vomit (bulimia), cry, panic and harm herself. Her body, the source of so much power, requires so much maintenance that she’s unable and often unwilling to maintain. Throughout the film, Diana imagines a similarly rattled Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife, who he had beheaded, wandering the halls. Diana likens herself to an insect under a microscope, her enemies pulling off her legs and wings. The Princess’s femininity, her delicacy, has to be damaged due to her rebellion against expectation. As if she literally can’t contain her emotions, her skin must be broken, scalded and burned to break away from the perfectly performed femininity. 

Mainly as a visceral experience, Spencer works. Larraín avoids many of the biopic pitfalls by creating something between fiction and nonfiction and hyper-focused on a few days rather than a lifetime. Stewart is compelling, and Larraín’s visual style is kinetic and unusual. Yet, the film remains messy; the Anne Boleyn plot point is muddled, and Diana’s obsession with “home,” particularly in the final act, feels overwrought and ultimately unnecessary. It doesn’t add anything and confuses the visual and narrative cohesion of the rest of the film. 

While the realm of celebrity and femininity is hardly new terrain for Larraín, Spencer and Jackie sometimes feel more like cheap historic novels dressed up in aesthetic filters than great films. Some gestures and moments resonate, but Princess Diana remains fundamentally unknowable as a real person, especially in the scope of this kind of narrative. The fable-like framing effuses any true desires and longings. Diana was already so humanized; her agonies real and imagined pored over by the media and the public. The only other realm that could elevate the film would be an examination of the symbolic; what does it mean to be a princess? What expectations does that title entail culturally and also practically? In a way, perhaps, the Anne Boleyn storyline touches on this idea, though her presence in the film seems to align the audience with thinking of Diana as a martyr more than anything else.

The concept of martyrdom could be symbolically interesting, but it still feels underdeveloped. In a way, Diana’s tragic death did represent a pivotal turning point for the royal family. Still, these ideas are relegated to extra-textual rather than explored with any real intention or depth. 

Spencer, ultimately, doesn’t quite work. It’s torn between too many styles and intentions. It seems unlikely that people passionate about Princess Diana will connect profoundly with Stewart’s performance and how it is presented, and those looking for a film that is more than just experiential fan fiction may also walk away unsatisfied. The film falls short, rarely elevating itself above being somewhat interesting and emotionally draining. ■

Spencer opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 5.
Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, directed by Pablo Larraín

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