“Spencer,” Pablo Larraín’s magnificent movie about Princess Diana and how she freed herself from the life she chose, the life that made her a star, and the life that was killing her, opens with a sequence that’s staged, with a deadpan wink, to look like a thriller. At the Sandringham Estate, a preposterously large six-story country mansion that stands on 20,000 acres of the Norfolk Coast, a military convoy arrives, toting crates that look like they must contain oversize weapons. But no, they’re just carrying food — cascades of fruit and vegetables, lobsters the size of AK-47s. It’s all in preparation for the three-day Christmas weekend, which the British royal family will be spending at Sandringham. The consumption of food — fresh, sweet, savory, luscious, opulent in its abundance — will be at the center of the festivities. As the cooks come in, they, too, walk in formation, and the film crosscuts between these paramilitary kitchen rituals and the sight of a sporty little green car tooling through the countryside. It’s being driven by Diana (Kristen Stewart), the Princess of Wales, and the fact that she’s on her own is no accident. The weekend hasn’t even begun, and already the film is letting us know two things: that she’s breaking away, and that she’s lost.
Literally lost. “Where the fuck am I?” says Diana, trying to hold up a map as she drives. She should probably know; it’s her old neighborhood — the place where she grew up, just a mile or two from Sandringham. But she’s out of sorts now; she has misplaced her spiritual compass. So she stops at a petrol station and walks into the café to ask for help. It’s a comic situation, since Diana, in a red-and-green plaid jacket that looks like it must be Prada, knows that wherever she goes she’ll be greeted as who she is: the most famous and idolized woman in the world. “Excuse me,” she says to no one in particular. “I’m looking for somewhere. I have absolutely no idea where I am.” That statement can be read on a deep level. For the moment, though, what we’re looking at, and listening to, is Kristen Stewart, and hearing her say those lines gives you a tingle. The words are soft and satiny, but they tumble out in a whispery rush, a burst of girlish sincerity that’s at once imperious and anxious. Di, we can see, is commanding the room, feeling the power that’s there in her. She also looks like she wants to melt away.
And here’s the beauty part: Right off, we feel as if we’re seeing…Diana. The real thing. Kristen Stewart doesn’t just do an impersonation (though on the level of impersonation she’s superb). She transforms; she changes her aspect, her rhythm, her karma. Watching her play Diana, we see an echo, perhaps, of Stewart’s own ambivalent relationship to stardom — the way that she’ll stand on an awards podium, chewing her lip, reveling in the attention even as she’s slightly uncomfortable with it (and even as she makes that distrust of the limelight a key element of her stardom). Mostly, though, what we see in Stewart’s Diana is a woman of natural-born elegance, with a luminosity that pours out of her, except that a part of her is now driven to block that off, because her life has become a wreck.
“Spencer” is a movie made very much in the spirit of Larraín’s “Jackie,” the 2016 drama in which Natalie Portman brilliantly portrayed Jackie Kennedy during the week following the JFK assassination. I thought “Jackie” was a knockout, and “Spencer,” which also finds its heroine living through a fateful moment of truth and transition, is every bit as good; it may be even better. The entire film is set over the Christmas holiday, about 10 years after the 1981 wedding of Diana and Prince Charles, and it takes the form of a you are-there voyeuristic diary of what Diana was going through as she came to realize that her disenchantment with her life had become defining, consuming.
In the movie, we see a princess, a woman of power and true majesty, who is treated like a child. Major Gregory, played by a disarmingly gaunt and severe-looking Timothy Spall, has been brought on to the premises to keep an eye on her, and his watchful gaze makes her feel like a pinned insect. And Diana’s lady-in-waiting, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), is her one trusted confidante — but for that very reason, Maggie gets sent away. There can be no secrets. And there are none. At Sandringham, the walls have ears.
“Spencer” is an intimate speculative drama that stays as close as it can to everything we know about Diana. At the same time, the movie is infused with a poetic extravagance. The remarkable production design, by Guy Hendrix Dyas, turns the interiors of Sandringham into a profusion of textures that dance before our eyes — the patterned curtains and gilded wallpaper, the carved paneling, the warm light of the chandeliers, the paintings and upholstery and mirrors and knickknacks. And Jonny Greenwood’s ominous jazzy score seems to have a direct pipeline to Diana’s emotions. Larraín places Di in this luxe getaway palace as if he were making a royal version of “The Shining,” though part of what’s bracing about the movie is that the members of the royal family have come to think it’s Diana who’s the monster. They regard the attention she receives as a threat to who they are, and they’re right. What they’re in denial of is that the media is creating a new world that’s going to squeeze them out.
No one forced Diana, of course, to become one of the royals. In the eyes of the world, she’s living the dream. She had turned into our real-life media-age Cinderella. But “Spencer” is a film with the daring, and the imagination, to portray Diana not as a “princess,” or as a rebel princess either, but as the idiosyncratic flesh-and-blood woman she was, and the movie creates a kind of dream projection of her inner life.
Yes, she has wealth, comfort, privilege, fame. But life within the gilded cage of the royal family is also stifling. As she explains to her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), that’s because it’s a life that makes time stand still. “Here,” she says, “there is only one tense. There is no future. Past and present are the same thing.” What she’s talking about is an existence in which “tradition” is code for: what has been, and what always will be. (It’s code for a very British kind of control.) There is no room for anything that isn’t tradition. The film presents Diana’s bulimia with disarming frankness (it’s an open secret that even Charles makes scornful reference to), but part of the drama of how it’s portrayed is that it’s not just an “eating disorder.” It’s Diana’s way of rejecting the food porn that’s part of what the royals use to numb themselves.
As “Spencer” presents it, Diana is trapped in a loveless marriage to a diffident stick of a man who openly betrays her. Not an uncommon situation. But since she’s one of the royals, she cannot leave him (or so she thinks). She’s effectively imprisoned. She knows she’s supposed to wear the gorgeous pearl necklace that Charles got her, but he also got the same necklace for her — for his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles (who we glimpse outside the church on Christmas morning; she gives Diana a grin of malice). He did it thoughtlessly, not even realizing that anyone would notice. (Unlike Diana, he’s got a pre-media mind.) In her bedroom at the mansion, Diana finds a biography of Anne Boleyn, the wife that Henry VIII accused of adultery and beheaded so that he could marry someone else, and she begins to feel Boleyn as a kindred spirit. Larraín stages an extraordinary dinner scene in which Diana takes in the stares of Charles, the Queen, and others who have begun to register that she’s “cracking up.” Their attitude is: How do you solve a problem like Diana? But Diana grabs the pearls around her neck as if the necklace itself were about to execute her. Those pearls are killing her softly.
For decades now, what we think of as the “Masterpiece Theatre” genre has made a kind of deal with adult moviegoers. Starting in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when it rose in tandem with high-concept fantasy culture, the British period-piece costume drama has said to its audience, “Forget the blockbuster noise! Here’s a movie in which you’ll get to experience sparkling dialogue, as well as genuine interaction between people.” In that light, part of the audacity of “Spencer” is that, in spirit and form, it’s a kind of “Masterpiece Theatre” movie, except that the nimble conversation that’s the lifeblood of these films — or, indeed, of “The Crown” — is denied to Diana. That’s right: The royal family is too boring to even talk very much. Yet the script, by Steven Knight (“Locke”), creates its own alluring cleverness. It’s there in Diana’s dialogue, which consists of her spewing out observations, to others but almost to herself, with a kind of rueful mockery. “This was once Queen Victoria’s room,” she says of her bedroom. “So it will have her skin floating in the air.” More tragically, she says, referring to own incandescence, “Beauty is useless. Beauty is clothing.” The movie shows you that she’s come to believe that.
How will Diana escape? For most of the movie, she has no idea that she can. But an encounter with a scarecrow, nicknamed Bertie, that she remembers from her youth, when she was Diana Spencer, sets off something in her. She goes to visit her old house, which is boarded up now, and she realizes that she was more of herself back then than she is now. But in all the conflicts she has with Charles, who is played by Jack Farthing as a man of brutal limitation, there is one she is driven not to compromise on: She does not want her eldest son, William, to become part of his father’s pheasant-hunting brigade. She says that it’s dangerous. She’s right, but the real problem is what she won’t say, and what she intuits: that the habit of hunting, and the way that it’s linked to the royals’ tradition of “military” discipline (though a real soldier doesn’t get his prey paraded right in front of him), incarnates everything that’s wrong with them.
So the day after Christmas, she drives out to the hunting field, desperate and defiant, and she becomes that scarecrow. Skewing her arms up in the air, Diana demands that her sons stop hunting. And Kristen Stewart makes that the most moving moment I’ve seen in any film this year. Diana isn’t speaking as a royal. She’s speaking as a mother — as the woman she will now be. How will she do it? Like the pop song that plays thrillingly during the following sequence tells us, all she needs is a miracle (and maybe a little fast food). She will still be “Diana.” But now she will be herself.