The British Royal Family may just be the most elaborate work of performance art in human history. It would be a stretch, at least in their modern incarnation, to refer to them as any sort of conventional governing body; rather, they exist to project an image of tradition and comfort which has become essential to the British national sense of wellbeing. Yet this image of cozy banquets and old-world simplicity is as choreographed and minutely stage-managed as any arena rock concert. One of the first images we see in Spencer, the new historical mood piece from Jackie director Pablo Larraín, is a team of soldiers securing a perimeter around the kitchen which will shortly prepare the royal Christmas dinner. Later, we see the royal chef (played by Sean Harris, apparently demoted since we last saw him as King Arthur in The Green Knight) reciting the menu to his staff with all the precision of a drill sergeant. This same menu is then relayed to the Royal Family in a more genteel manner by Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), an actual military man serving as a sort of showrunner to make sure the holiday plays out without incident– a job made necessary by the high-profile strife rocking the family’s most prominent couple.
Spencer, of course, tells the sad story of Diana, Princess of Wales, here played by Kristen Stewart. Rather than tell the full story of her life and tragic death, however, it focuses entirely on her final Christmas as a part of the Royal Family proper. Though Diana was born of nobility, nothing can prepare one for the unique pressures of Buckingham Palace, both internal (the minute-by-minute decrees of which dress to wear, and when) and external (the swarms of paparazzi hoping to capture tawdry evidence of Di’s bulimia, Prince Charles’ extramarital affair, and anything else they can get their grubby shutters on). When we meet Diana, she’s doing everything she can to delay the proceedings, accidentally-on-purpose getting lost en route to the manor and taking a detour to find a scarecrow her father made. Once she arrives, her “family” feels as distant to her as they are to the British public; her only confidants are her personal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and her young sons William and Harry (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry, both quite good). When they’re not around, she finds herself alternately sequestered in her room or wandering the halls like a ghost. As the holiday wears on in isolation, Diana comes to realize that her only options are to flee her gilded cage or go mad– or worse.
Spencer is being released at the time of year that studios often tend to put out high-gloss biopics of iconic figures featuring transformative star turns by Academy-hopeful superstars. This is probably smart from an awards-season standpoint, but it also does the film something of a disservice: it will probably be ignored by a lot of people who would love it, and baffle those who show up expecting something more traditional. This is a film about Princess Diana, but it is in no conventional sense a “biopic” (an opening title card succinctly describes it as “A fable from a true tragedy”). There are fleeting references to the events leading up to the 48 hours documented on screen (particularly Charles’ ongoing fling with future second wife Camilla Parker-Bowles), but Larraín quite reasonably relies on his audience’s familiarity with the subject to fill in the gaps. Likewise, the Royal Family themselves are largely portrayed as icons rather than characters, parading from portrait-sitting to banquet amidst a cloud of servants and corgis. Even Charles (perfectly played by Jack Farthing as a snivelling little shit) only really has one full scene opposite his wife, the rest of his screen time mostly consisting of withering glances and passive-aggressive asides. This is a biopic stripped to the barest of bones; The Crown it is not.
What we are left with, then, is a portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown– the twist being that said woman is one of the most internationally famous people in living memory. The big story here, of course, is Stewart’s performance, the latest in a long line of icons transmogrifying into other icons. It’s not quite right to say that Stewart disappears into the role; one can’t help but get the sense that every fidget is studied and each hair-flip is calculated. But, in the context of this particular film, it feels wholly appropriate. This is a film about the performance of day-to-day life, and try as she may, Diana can’t quite get into character. To this end, Stewart is nothing short of riveting. For much of the film, Larraín shoots his leading lady head-on, isolating her in the center of the frame (the effect is similar to that used by Jonathan Demme to put us in the shoes of Clarice Starling). From this vantage, we can see Diana attempt one character, give up on that, and try another, the terrified woman behind the mask peering through the cracks. Whether she’s “Diana” or not, Stewart’s is one of the most mesmerizing performances of the year.
Perhaps it’s the result of seeing Spencer less than 24 hours after exiting the Coolidge’s annual 12-hour Halloween marathon, but one thing that struck me was how much Spencer at times plays like a gothic horror story. Upon checking into the manor, Diana discovers a copy of Anne Boleyn: Life and Death of a Martyr conspicuously left in her bedroom; she understandably finds herself haunted by the ill-fated queen, first figuratively, then quite literally. The score, by Jonny Greenwood, echoes the princess’s fractured mental state, skittering between squealing horror-movie strings and spooky, Bitches Brew-inspired jazz. There are even moments where Diana steals across the foggy meadows in her night clothes like the heroine on the cover of an old gothic paperback. (One could probably also make a crack about the horror trope of being stuck in a remote house with a family of inbred sociopaths, but let’s just let that one lie). Watching Spencer occasionally feels like following an expendable teenager stumble through the first reel of a slasher film, all but yelling at the screen to don’t open that door!
Of course, Diana never actually meets her end in Spencer— a cursory scan of the timeline probably places it somewhere around 1992– but knowledge of what’s to come shades every minute of its running time. Like Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s impossible to watch Stewart’s Diana without thinking of how it’s going to end. The difference is that Robbie found the tragedy of Tate in her radiant naivete, while Stewart weaves that sense of doom into every character choice. Watching Diana pace the halls and stare pensively into the middle distance, it’s tough to shake the sense that she knows what’s in store just as well as we do; when she veers into an unexpected detour or refuses to wear the “correct” dress that’s been picked out for her, it’s as if she’s trying to find some way to alter her path and change the inevitable. Larraín leans into Diana’s pop-cultural beatification, posing her in tableaux like a sort of kitsch madonna (in one of the film’s most indelible images, Diana swoons across the floor of her impossibly ornate bathroom, in full Disney Princess regalia, her forehead resting lightly on the seat of the open toilet). Like so many icons before and since, Diana’s life is inseparable from her death, and Larraín and Stewart wisely make no attempt to cleave the two.
All that being said, even a filmmaker as inventive as Larraín can’t help but indulge in some of the trappings of the prestige-biopic genre; the dialogue occasionally does the clever-clever “This is what we’re really talking about” dance, and the character interactions are so clunkily delineated that I initially assumed I was watching a stage adaptation. But the talk is just one of the brushes Larraín uses to paint this sweeping, at times nearly abstract portrait. There was always going to be a Princess Diana movie, and it was always going to have an Oscar-inevitable lead performance, but there probably aren’t a lot of universes where it’s this unusual.
dir. Pablo Larraín
Opens Friday, 11/5 at Coolidge Corner Theatre, Somerville Theatre, and Kendall Square Cinema