A spiky icon and a gentle iconoclast, Diana Spencer occupies a place in the public consciousness of Britain and the rest of the world which is as complicated as it is enormous. Pablo Larraín’s sublime new film about her, in which she is played by a career-best Kristen Stewart, is a fitting and fantastic tribute.
It’s a bit like one of the dozen-plus amazing outfits Stewart wears in the film. To say Stewart’s Diana is dressed to the nines throughout Spencer would be putting it far too royally. In terms the Diana we see in Spencer would use, she looks fucking fantastic.
Spencer is a raunchier, more rebellious Diana than we’ve seen her portrayed onscreen before. Practically her first word in the film is a sassy expletive, and we go from there. Stewart’s take on the late princess is much less innocent and childish than Emma Corrin’s stellar performance on Netflix’s royal series The Crown, though that’s partly because Spencer is set a decade later than most of the show’s most recent season. By 1990, Diana really had been through it. Charles and Camilla’s affair was public and flagrantly practiced (Diana wasn’t a prude, either). William and Harry are old enough for Diana to see how Charles fares as a father. Like in every other aspect, he’s unimpressive.
Yet Diana is also particularly thorny here because Pablo Larraín is behind the wheel. His similarly-styled 2016 drama Jackie told the story of John F. Kennedy’s long-suffering wife, with Natalie Portman also doing career-best work. The attachment of British screenwriter Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Serenity, Locked Down) admittedly sparked some concern. I feared Knight’s normie style would make Spencer more conventional than Jackie, less fiery, less transgressive.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Knight is a canny writer able to present his subject’s quiet solitude and her noisy, troublemaking side with subtlety and grace. That’s best seen in Diana’s nervous self-identification with Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and the first of two he had beheaded. Diana’s fear of expendability is artfully communicated in that particular anxiety.
It’s also reasonably well-founded. Early in our education, British children are taught Anne Boleyn was beheaded with a sword, a sign of the tyrant king’s grace and continued love for her. It’s only on reflection that the sheer savagery of such an act, such a family and such a system really becomes clear. Well, that was Diana’s experience with the Windsors, too. Boleyn is much more than just a rumoured distant relative.
And on the subject of distant relatives, the sitting royals aren’t much fun, either. Jack Farthing’s Charles is an infuriating bore. He scowls and tuts and rolls his eyes, saying little. Farthing is a very good fit in a film which, interestingly, gives the so-called Firm of the family few lines and certainly no big names. This is wise: Spencer knows who its main character is. When Diana starts acting out over dinner — quite understandably — Charles just looks to his mum for help and glares down glumly at his food. It’s a reaction so wildly frustrating and neglectful I wanted to punch him in the face and abolish the monarchy on the spot.
Diana almost certainly would never have supported the second of those responses, though maybe the first. A posh girl who grew up yards away from the Queen’s east of England Sandringham estate-cum-correctional facility where most of Spencer takes place, she became the unlikeliest of anti-establishment divas. Watching her go on that journey is joyful and enthralling, even if she’s gone most of the way before the events of Spencer. Diana caught the public imagination because of her atypical generosity and arresting fashion sense and risky exploits. But more importantly, I think, because her fights against domestic oppression exist for most of us. Not all our mothers-in-law are the Queen of England. That it sometimes feels like they are placed Diana in the very centre of millions of our lives. She hasn’t left.
That’s not to say Spencer revolves entirely around Diana. Seasoned English character actors Timothy Spall and Sean Harris play palace staff who keep a watchful eye, presumably on orders from above. Sally Hawkins is the highlight of the bunch as Maggie, Diana’s most trusted dresser and confidante.
Still, no one is allowed to outshine Stewart here. She doesn’t let them. The ex-Twilight star who, in Personal Shopper five years ago, showed us she is one of America’s most capable actresses, Stewart simply soars. Amid brief British worries about her accent, Stewart delivers an impeccable brogue. Her performance is even better. As a terrified young woman and scorned wife and semi-manic mom grounded by William and Harry — but only just — Stewart and Knight and Larraín have a laser-focused idea of a tragic figure and an accidental revolutionary.
The Chilean director’s film can only, then, be consistently brilliant and tremendously moving. Or, in terms Stewart’s Diana might use, fucking fantastic.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. NEON will release Spencer in U.S. theaters on November 5.