Film review: Stewart makes the most of a fine script about Diana in ‘Spencer’

Director Pablo Larrain guides the storytelling visually, with deft foreshadowing


Chilean director Pablo Larrain knows how to foreshadow, and he does it brilliantly in his latest, “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana.

The movie opens as the royal family gathers at Queen Elizabeth’s Sandringham Estate for Christmas. The castle’s staff is getting ready for several days of eating and drinking and shooting and hunting, as per tradition. And about a dozen military-style vehicles make their way down a tree-lined road to the estate. At the side of the road is what appears to be a dead but colorful pheasant. And as you watch the vehicles pass the pheasant, you can’t help but wonder whether one of them will ride over the bird and crush it. (Or at least I couldn’t help but wonder.)

The colorful pheasant, as it turns out, represents Princess Diana, in a way — and you’ll begin to understand the importance of the scene in the meaning of the movie’s ending. Larrain makes this connection subtly, but not without the help of savvy scriptwriter Steven Knight.

If you’re wondering why all the vehicles were heading to the castle, the answer is food. The trucks are carrying crates of lobster, beef, vegetables, dairy, desserts and other cuisine, where it will be turned into formal meals for Christmas celebrations for the queen and her retinue, which includes her immediate family.

Then there’s the contrast of the vehicles delivering the royal family members. Chauffeurs open the doors of stately Rolls-Royces for the queen, Prince Charles, sons William and Harry — and even one Rolls-Royce is devoted to delivering the queen’s beloved bevy of corgis.

But the biggest contrast is the way Princess Diana arrives for the festivities. She decides to drive alone, in a sports car, through the British countryside, with the top down, the wind blowing through her hair. She’s dressed impeccably and colorfully, defying royal rules by not having her own driver.

This is the essence of “Spencer,” a fanciful imagining of what those holiday weeks at Sandringham might have been like for the former Diana Spencer, whose marriage to Prince Charles has grown cold amid rumors of affairs and divorce. The queen wants everyone to play nice for Christmas, and although Diana understands the rules of the game, she’s not above disrupting the choreographed charade.

As Diana, Stewart is more than adequate. In fact, she’s quite good. Ever since the “Twilight” saga, she has carried a whiff of being a star who made her name in less-than-stellar movies. But some Americans are not familiar with the fact that Stewart has become a darling of European cineastes, having starred in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” as well as his “Personal Shopper.” Both films were official selections of the Cannes Film Festival.

Her performance in “Spencer” should put to rest the notion that she’s not a fine actress. As Diana, she has the look down pat, with a glorious procession of fashionable moments in the most glorious gowns. But you can tell in her mannerisms and the way she tilts her head that she feels like she’s living in a gilded cage, unable to live the life she wants.

Another way to put it: She’s living in an upside-down fairytale, where she decides not to become a queen but chooses to build her own life. Larrain and Knight expand on this notion with the scenes featuring Diana with her two young sons. She plays games with them, and they dream of a day when they might be able to flee the royal confines and “eat food with our fingers.”

Amid all of this, Larrain explores the well-known eating disorders that affected Diana during the failed royal marriage. The most striking image, perhaps, is the poster featuring Diana in a fabulous gown with a long train, huddling over a toilet as she vomits.

Aside from William and Harry, Diana has few people with whom she can let down her guard. Her favorite is her dresser, Maggie, played by the always-wonderful Sally Hawkins. Diana also tries to confide in other staff members, most of whom are quite perplexed at the prospect of making friends with a royal. Those staffers include Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), who oversees security and privacy for the family.

Most of the scenes in “Spencer’ revolve around Diana’s despair at having to dress and go to yet another formal meal, with the queen (Stella Gonet), Prince Philip (Richard Samuel) and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing).

At one of those meals, Diana is required to wear a new strand of pearls that Charles has given her for Christmas. But Diana hates the pearls because Charles has given the same necklace to his mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Diana fantasizes about ripping the pearls from her neck at the dinner table and letting them fall into her soup bowl, from which she scoops them up in a spoon and starts chewing on them in front of the royal family. She also starts imagining that she can talk to Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated bride of King Henry VIII, who had her head chopped off when Henry moved on to another woman. (A portrait of dear Henry hangs in the Sandringham Estate.)

All of this becomes important as Diana struggles with whether to stifle herself, kill herself or set herself free.

Stewart makes the most of this emotional journey, imbuing Diana with mystery, fragility and strength. Her performance makes “Spencer” worthwhile — and much more than a fashion show.

She is helped, of course, by the director and screenwriter, but also by Claire Mathon, the director of photography; Guy Hendrix Days, the production designer; Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer; and Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist and original music composer for the film.

For those who try to keep up to date on probable Oscar nominees, “Spencer” will be a must. Neon, the distributor, appears confident in the movie’s prospects. The movie has played at the Venice Film Festival, Telluride, Toronto — and most recently at the Austin Film Festival.

It opens Nov. 4, at the Austin Film Society Cinema as well as at other arthouses and theaters in the area.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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