Entertainment

Kristen Stewart channels Princess Diana's soul with new movie Spencer

Kristen Stewart is transformed into Lady Diana for the new movie Spencer, which reimagines a few critical days in the life of the People's Princess.

The past and present collide in the film, where Kristen Stewart becomes the late Lady Diana

Kristen Stewart told CBC News that the movie Spencer was about giving Diana a chance to speak for herself. (Elevation Pictures)

How can one of the world's most admired women find a way to be herself again, trapped in a kingdom of the past? 

That's one of the questions at the heart of Spencer, a vivid reimagining of a few critical days inside the head of Diana, the Princess of Wales, as her marriage to Prince Charles turned from a fairy-tale into a pearl-lined prison. 

No stranger to the ravenous attention of the media, Kristen Stewart transforms herself into Diana with a blond bob of a haircut, a breathy, posh accent and her eyes, often glistening on the edge of hysteria.

The year is 1991. The setting is Sandringham Estate, the palatial country residence the Royal Family retreats to over the holidays. 

The film opens with a study in contrasts.  As the royal kitchen is stocked with military precision, Diana zooms across the English landscape in a Porsche, already late for celebrations.

Life from Diana's POV

Speaking with CBC News, director Pablo Larraín described Spencer as a thought experiment. "A slice of what could have happened. We only see reality from her perspective."

(Larraín also directed the Oscar-nominated biopic, Jackie.)

Like a POV video game, the camera tracks Diana closely as she storms down the hallways, retreating into her bedroom.

Much of the film plays out as a battle of wills between Lady Diana and a fictitious Major Alistar Gregory. A prune-faced Timothy Spall plays the Queen's butler, the unbending personification of her will brought in to quell the swirling controversies.

Actor Kristen Stewart has been getting rave reviews for her portrayal of the late Princess Diana in the new film Spencer. She joined Tom Power from New York to discuss her performance and why taking on the role felt like an impossible task.

A holiday rebellion 

Speaking with CBC News, Kristen Stewart said Diana felt like "a really honest person who is not given an avenue, especially initially, to express herself. So she does it in other ways."

In this closely choreographed world, rebellion takes the form of tardiness or choosing whether to wear a certain dress, each outfit being carefully selected and scheduled by the royal dressers. 

The confrontation begins early as Diana arrives. There is a tradition of literally weighing in, where members of the Royal Family sit on a scale to measure whether you've put on three pounds of jolly-good fun after all the festive meals.  A potentially humiliating practice for a woman barely hiding her bulimia, but the major insists: "No one is above tradition." 

The script — written deftly by Stephen Knight — paints a picture of a Princess Di penned in by history and obligations.  Staying in a very room once occupied by Queen Victoria at Sandringham, she remarks that in the Royal Family, "the past and present are the same thing." 

Indeed, as Spencer continues, Diana is haunted by history. First, it's visions of Anne Boleyn, the accused adulterer beheaded by Henry VIII. But a more recent aspect of Diana's own past also lurks nearby. 

Situated next door to Sandringham is Park House, the rented property where Diana's family, the Spencers, were raised. Diana longs to escape and visit the setting of a simpler, less complicated time. 

In this scene from Spencer, Princess Diana, played by Kristen Stewart, visits the ruins of Park House, the rented property where she grew up. (Pablo Lorrain)

A movie about a mother inspired by another

With the heaving strings composed by Johnny Greenwood underscoring Diana's state of mind, Spencer is a far cry from the slushy soap opera treatment of The Crown

But Knight's thoughtful script and Larraín direction make for an immersive, somewhat impressionistic experience. 

As Stewart herself said, they took liberties to channel Diana's essence. "We really had this beautiful terrain with which to dance and dream — sort of revive this woman for a moment, in order to kind of give her a chance to speak for herself."

For Larraín, Spencer is ultimately a film about mothers. The Chilean filmmaker said he was inspired by his own mother's fascination with Diana and the empathy she inspired. 

"[Diana] had a very particular and sometimes difficult life, but she was always someone who created an incredible amount of empathy. Why? What's so relevant for so many people?" 

WATCH | CBC News speaks with Kristen Stewart about becoming Diana:

Why there’s mixed reaction about a new Princess Diana movie

9 months ago
Duration 2:31
The movie Spencer is receiving criticism from some Princess Diana fans who say it leans too hard into the more tragic and unflattering aspects of her life. But actress Kristen Stewart, who plays Diana, says that’s actually the point of the movie, and many women may see their lives reflected on the big screen.

For all its histrionics, one of the film's most effective scenes is a secret midnight meeting between Diana and her sons, William and Harry, where they pretend to be soldiers whispering questions to each other. 

At one point William asks: "What's happened to make you so sad?"

Diana bluffs until William insists. 

"The past," she says.

"I think it's the present, soldier," William says.

"I think it's in the future," adds Harry. 

It's a heartbreaking scene for its tenderness and the two people Diana can't hide from. 

In addition to Spall as the royal watchdog, Stewart is complemented by a strong supporting cast: Sean Harris, as the taciturn head chef Darren; and Sally Hawkins, as Diana's favourite dresser Maggie — someone who sees through the royal rigamarole. Jack Farthing appears briefly as Prince Charles, showcased as a cold, uncaring cad more worried about protocol than his wife's state of mind. 

While the film's wardrobe certainly helps set the mood, director Pablo Larraín says Kristen Stewart locked into Diana's soul and why so many people relate to her. (Pablo Larraín)

Locking in on the mystery of Diana

While Spencer is stuffed with symbols — the ghosts haunting the halls, the dead pheasant on the drive in — the film is undoubtedly Kristen Stewart's. The fancy frocks and exquisite setting help sell the story, but as Larraín says, the final step was Stewart locking into the mood and character. 

"It was very surprising and quite beautiful," he said. "After the first day of shooting … she already captured what people can relate to [about] her, which is her soul." 

While both the actor and director deferred when asked what Diana's grown children may make of the film, Stewart said of Diana: "We leaned toward her with love, because she did the same for us." 

That is where Spencer ends. With love and a final act of rebellion, as Diana and the kids zoom away, a pop song blasting on the car stereo. A giddy high note replacing the all-too-real final destination. 

Spencer opens in theatres on Nov. 5. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.  

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