Kristen Stewart is a brilliantly haunted Princess Di in biofable "Spencer"
Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Sean Harris, Jack Farthing, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel, Elizabeth Berrington, Lore Stefanek, Amy Manson. Written by Steven Knight. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox and other GTA theatres. 117 minutes. PG
"Spencer" boasts a bravura performance by Kristen Stewart as a haunted Princess Diana, as she nears a meltdown contemplating divorce from Prince Charles during a 1991 Christmas gathering at the Royal Family's Sandringham Estate country home.
Director Pablo Larraín (“Jackie”) admits up front his film isn't a documentary; a title card calls it "a fable from a true tragedy." While Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight ("Locke," "Eastern Promises") occasionally overreach with their myth spinning, their empathy and compassion — and also Stewart's — for a woman enduring a mental breakdown are beautifully expressed. But the film doesn't attempt to make a saint of Diana, who is not above moments of petulance and rudeness.
Three early match cuts, set to Jonny Greenwood's mournful score, reveal in quick succession the royal routines Diana has come to know and despise: armed soldiers marching in unison, carrying boxes of expensive seasonal delicacies; a "brigade" of kitchen staff bustling to craft perfect meals; the Queen's many pet Corgis arriving en masse and on leash, obediently entering the giant mansion.
Free-spirited Diana chafes at the rules, which include having to wear pre-chosen outfits — labelled with POW tags that seem to indicate "prisoner of war" rather than "Princess of Wales" — to all her royal events. It's as much a form of protest as it is genuine disorientation when she wheels her Mercedes convertible up to a café en route to Sandringham to ask for directions. She tells the astonished patrons, "I have absolutely no idea where I am."
Arriving late for a meal, one the bulimic Diana will later upchuck in the royal privy, she is scolded by Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), the ex-Black Watch officer tasked with keeping Sandringham humming, for breaching protocol by keeping the Queen waiting. Gregory, a hawk posing as a dove, intends to keep an eye on Diana.
The only people Diana can count on for advice and comfort are her royal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and Sandringham head chef Darren (Sean Harris), who recognize her distress and try to help her, unlike the other members of the royal household. The only real joy in Diana's life comes from her two sons, Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry), who are also worried about their mother's precarious mental state.
Gauzy cinematography makes "Spencer" seem like a high-class ghost story — and there's a least one real phantom prowling the premises, the tragic figure of Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII's castaway wives. Seen only by Diana, is Anne a cautionary figure or a scolding one? As for the rest of the Royals, from the scowling Queen (Stella Gonet) to the scolding Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), they seem more like zombies than ghosts.
There's huge counterpoint to the Royals of “The Crown”: the human beings of the TV series become the walking dead of “Spencer.” 🌓
(This review was originally published in the Toronto Star.)