Princess Diana continues her pop-cultural reign. Predictably, she’s been all over “The Crown.” Less predictably, she’s the subject of a musical, “Diana,” which debuted on Netflix last month and opens on Broadway Nov. 17. Not predictably at all, Kristen Stewart plays her in “Spencer.” The not-predictableness is twofold: Stewart’s casting and how very good she is.
Spencer was, of course, Diana’s maiden name. That being the title of Pablo Larraín’s film indicates how thoroughly the movie sees things from her point of view, though not so much as to keep us from seeing she could be victimizer as well as victim. Larraín’s best-known film is “Jackie” (2016), with Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. “Jackie” and “Spencer” plainly complement each other.
It’s Christmastime, circa 1990, at the royal estate at Sandringham. As even commoners know, Christmas can be fraught for any family. It’s also a time for magical tales and unusual events. An awareness of that latter aspect colors the very good script, written by Steven Knight (”Peaky Blinders,” “Locke”).
The first words we see onscreen are “A Fable From a True Tragedy.” “Fable” means most of the facts are true (Diana did grow up in a house on the Sandringham grounds) but there’s plenty of room for artistic license (was there a scarecrow on the estate that wore an old coat of her father’s?).
Diana is cracking up. She knows it. The other royals know it. We see her purging, bingeing, and even cutting herself. None of this is played for cheap effects. Far more troubling is Diana’s sense of desperation. She arrives late on Christmas Eve day, having driven herself from London. Lost, she stops at a roadside cafe. (The gobsmacked faces of the patrons are as much of a sight to see as she is.) “I have absolutely no idea where I am,” she says. “Where am I?” Once she gets to Sandringham, she could repeat the question with even more justification.
One of the shrewder things Larraín and Knight do is de-emphasize the other royals, other than her sons, William and Harry (played very well by Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry). The most memorable scene in the movie consists of the boys and their mother playing a game by candlelight early Christmas morning as the rest of the royals sleep. There’s such a thing as movie magic, which anyone who has gone to movies much has experienced. There’s also such a thing as family magic, something that most people, with any luck, have gotten to experience firsthand. It’s very rare for the two to coincide. Here they do.
The scene serves a larger, sadder purpose: emphasizing how inert the rest of the royal family is emotionally. “Spencer” opens with a severely beautiful shot of a wintry field. It sets an emotional tone, and temperature, for the movie — excepting that scene with the boys and several with Diana’s favorite servant, Maggie (Sally Hawkins). “They can’t change,” Maggie tells her. “You have to change.” The two women both know she’s right. They also both know she’s unable to.
The servants matter more than the royals: Maggie; the head chef, Darren (Sean Harris); the head of the household, Major Gregory (Timothy Spall). Maggie is sympathetic. Darren is sympathetic, if perplexed. Gregory, stern as he is, is not without sympathy either. In a fine scene, he and Diana sit on a set of steps on the grounds and he describes how a fellow soldier, his best friend, died in his arms in Northern Ireland. As he tells her, “There really is no time for indulgence, ma’am.”
Hawkins, Harris, and Spall give performances worthy of Stewart’s (we’ll get back to her). Between the presence of Hawkins and Spall, and the film being about a dysfunctional British family, “Spencer” could be a Mike Leigh movie in disguise.
Or a horror movie hardly in disguise at all. Sandringham is a haunted house, and “Spencer” is a ghost story — with Diana as her own ghost. “Here, there is only one tense,” she says. “There is no future. Past and present are the same thing.” Their vastness makes the rooms feel all the more confining. And if the several tracking shots in Sandringham’s endless corridors don’t remind you of the Overlook Hotel, then you’ve never seen “The Shining.”
“Kristen Stewart” isn’t exactly the first name that comes to mind when thinking of a royal princess, least of all this one. A latter-day Audrey Hepburn Stewart’s never been. Part of what makes her who she is onscreen (offscreen, too) is being louche and against-the-grain. It helps generate Stewart’s considerable kick as a movie star — but also limits her acting range.
Those limits aren’t visible here. Maybe that’s because there’s more of an affinity between Stewart and Diana than you might think. Diana went against the grain, too, albeit a very different grain. Like her, Stewart knows what it means to be tabloid quarry. She also played another hounded famous blonde, Jean Seberg, in a 2019 biopic.
What must it be like for an actor to play a famous person, let alone one this impossibly famous? The challenge starts with resemblance, and Stewart gets Diana’s wounded-deer manner, the sulky eyes, the slight tilt of the head. She also does a very good English accent. But appearance isn’t personality, let alone character. Stewart manages to combine diffidence and hauteur, entitlement and neediness, in a way that feels unnervingly true to the woman she’s playing.
About a third or so of “Spencer” doesn’t work: flashbacks to Diana’s childhood, hallucinations involving Anne Boleyn, a secret visit to her old house, a Boxing Day pheasant shoot that turns into a battle of wills between Diana and Charles (Jack Farthing). But Stewart’s performance makes those things immaterial and the rest of the movie seem all the finer. “Diana, there has to be two of you,” Charles tells her. “The real you, and the one they take pictures of.” Stewart gets them both, and the many women in between.
Directed by Pablo Larraín. Written by Steven Knight. Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Sean Harris. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Dedham Community, suburbs. 111 minutes. R (language).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.