Diana is perpetually late in Spencer. The Princess of Wales — played with amazing translucence by Kristen Stewart — gets lost in the opening moments of Pablo Larran's new film after opting to make her own way to Sandringham, the house where the royal family meets for their Christmas feast. She grew up in Park House, so it's a place she's familiar with. But as an anxious adult in the world's most scrutinized failed marriage, she can't seem to remember the place where she was once a blissful child.
Diana walks into a café alone, a quiet falling as she asks the woman behind the counter, “Where am I?” while her husband, Charles (Jack Farthing), and their children, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), enter with the normal driver and security retinue. As metaphors go, it's hard to miss, but Diana's tardiness is about more than a loss of self-awareness. Diana is upsetting the order of things by consistently appearing after the queen (Stella Gonet) to dinners, photographs, and the holidays themselves. She's revealing the arbitrary character of the family's rituals and customs, which it uses to distinguish itself from the rest of the world.
Spencer, a picture of a melancholy modern aristocrat grappling with the weight of public adoration, is a perfect bookend to Larran's 2016 Jackie, in which Natalie Portman played a newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy in a similar circumstance with brittle self-awareness. Jackie, on the other hand, was a film about the creation of American royalty, about how its protagonist carved her late husband's presidency into national mythology through force of will and the power of image, enshrining him as a symbol of a lost idyll rather than an all-too-human man, through force of will and the power of image.
The film Spencer, written by Steven Knight, accomplishes the opposite, exploiting the implausibility of the notion that a collection of fallible human individuals can somehow embody a country's spirit. Diana is viewed as temperamental, rebellious, and on the verge of a breakdown, despite the fact that her problem is that she's too sane to play the game. She's humiliated by Charles's connection with Camilla Parker Bowles and stumbling from the constant media blitz. “You have to be able to make your body do things you don't like for the welfare of the country,” Charles calmly explains to her in the one scene where they're alone together, as though it's only fair.
Diana is unable to make her body perform what she despises. Throughout Spencer, she is at odds with her body, to the point where, in addition to the constraints placed on her behavior, she literally jostles against the corridor walls, like Isabelle Adjani in Possession with the intensity turned down. So many of the rituals she's expected to follow involve relinquishing control of her body, from the approved outfits that have been scheduled for her to the "all in good fun" weigh-in that everyone must attend to prove they've properly indulged over the holidays by gaining three pounds — a tradition that dates back to 1847 and is absolute hell for someone with an eating disorder.
With recurrent shots of the head chef, Darren (Sean Harris), yelling out the outrageously detailed menus to his kitchen workers, Diana's bulimia becomes another way in which she fails to behave correctly, making every formal and informal meal an obstacle course to be traversed. She imagines pulling the necklace she's been given off her neck and swallowing the scattered pearls with her soup in one of the most iconic moments in the film. She dashes away to vomit, but there's always someone knocking on the door, not out of worry, but to announce that everyone is waiting for her.
Spencer is as exact and detailed as a high-end clock, with each component, no matter how small, fitting together perfectly. Maggie, Diana's trusty dresser and confidant, is played by Sally Hawkins, who exudes such warmth and good humor that we mourn her as much as Diana does when she leaves. Timothy Spall is all pursed-mouth menace as Alistar Gregory, a former major and clear company man tasked with keeping the press at bay. The picture, though, is Stewart's to carry, and she does so by going more minimalist than usual and allowing a knowledge of the ridiculousness of Diana's circumstance to creep in, even as she plays the woman's pain completely straight.
Diana's problem, that of the tormented lady imprisoned in line to be queen in the 1990s, is so unique that the only person who can empathize inside the film is Anne Boleyn, who appears in visions to offer her sympathy and cautions, played by Amy Manson. In some respects, Diana's most difficult challenge is the alienating plushness of her problems. She can't help but consider her coworkers as colleagues rather than people who are hired to spy on her, no matter how fond they are of her, and Stewart portrays Diana's outbursts as analogous to the way the character rushes to the bathroom after meals.
Despite their doubts and mixed loyalties, they are fond of each other. It's impossible not to admire the movie's version of Diana, who is incapable of stiff-upper-lipping her way through her own suffering, too frank about communicating her feelings and believing everyone else is doing the same. Stewart may not look like the real thing, but she can capture a sense of her sunny-bright charisma, the way she felt a bit too much like a star for a royal set used to being looked at all the time but never doing anything to deserve it. Diana may be constantly too much and too little, with her glitzy outfits and a penchant for fast food, but Spencer is just perfect.