Kristen Stewart Is Haunted by a Ghost of the Royals' Past in the Gorgeous 'Spencer'

Pablo Larraín's film, out in select theaters November 5, is more of a ghost story about the late Princess Diana than it is a biopic.

spencer, kristen stewart
Neon

The first line Kristen Stewart utters as Princess Diana in Spencer, the not-quite-biopic from director Pablo Larraín, is: "Where the fuck am I?" She says it under her breath as she zips around the English countryside in a Porsche, responding to the fact that Diana is quite literally lost as she tries to venture to the royals' Sandringham estate by herself. But the way Stewart speaks it, the dialogue is almost like a premonition of the liminal state the princess and this movie exists in, a zone where the living and dead collide.

In its opening moments, Spencer announces itself as a "fable from a true tragedy." Familiar iconography collides with the spectral to craft a version of Diana that is both recognizable and detached from her previous representations. Stewart does not transform into the figure we know from newscasts and The Crown so much as she interprets her through a series of whispered words and bowed heads. Spencer is exquisite camp mashed up with body horror and A Christmas Carol. It's a delicious apricot soufflé, rich and fluffy all at the same time, but it might also make you a little nauseous. 

Steven Knight's script takes place over three days during the Christmas holiday in 1991 as Diana's marriage to Charles (Jack Farthing) is crumbling, but Spencer isn't really interested in the historical timeline. It could be the early 1990s or the 16th century for all the filmmakers care. As Diana says to her children when they ask why they open presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning: "There is no future. The past and present are the same thing."

spencer
Neon

The plot—for what it is—is guided entirely by the rituals of the crown. Diana must keep herself together as she is subjected to one tightly scheduled event after another, be it tea or church or dinner. All the while she is being haunted. Early in the film, she takes a jacket she believes once belonged to her father off of a scarecrow. It looms over her room, a figure to which she talks and tends. But there's another presence: the ghost of Anne Boleyn, the cautionary tale about behaving yourself in these halls lest you lose your head.

Stewart's Diana is on edge from the moment she appears on screen, vibrating in her own skin to the tune of Jonny Greenwood's jittery score where horns blare and strings pierce. Larraín frames her in close up, cinematographer Claire Mathon's camera hovering just underneath Stewart's chin as the actress almost tries to use her own eyelids to shield her from public view. Stewart plays Diana as if the weight of being perceived is nearly too much to bear. And yet her Princess of Wales is also funny and playful, traits that come out especially in the scenes alongside her two sons (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry).

William and Harry are the only other members of the royal family who get much attention in Spencer. Diana shares some scenes with Farthing's Charles, but they are cold and guided by protocol. Aside from her kids, Diana's only sources of comfort in the halls of Sandrigham are provided by members of the staff, and yet those interactions are plagued by uncertainty, too. A foreboding sign in the kitchen where chef Darren (Sean Harris) monologues to his staff as if they are going into battle cautions that the walls of this castle are thin. That tension is even present in Diana's relationship with Maggie (Sally Hawkins, lovely), her dresser who appears to be a genuine friend.

This is not the first time Larraín has deconstructed a woman better known for her tragedy and fashion than her inner life, and Spencer makes an excellent companion to his Jackie, which looked at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (Natalie Portman) in the days following her husband's death. Larraín recognizes the voyeurism with which the audience will approach these women, and doesn't deny viewers those pleasures while still digging deeper into her private persona and achieving an artistic high. He understands that we want to see Diana running in her famous wedding dress and dancing in vast rooms, but those moments are not just for show. They are part of the lyrical way Larraín sees the fantasy of her liberation in the face of a rigid institution that wanted her to conform to their exacting rules and traditions. Larraín is dealing in alternate realities that nevertheless effectively probe our collective perception of history. Like the jazz that permeates Greenwood's music, Spencer is a riff on Diana with Larraín and Stewart operating at the peak of their powers.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.