Review: In Spencer, Kristen Stewart takes on a human and fallible princess

Spencer (M, 116 minutes)

5 stars

An estranged couple keeping it all together to give the kids one last family Christmas before dropping the D-I-V-O-R-C-E bombshell in the new year is, sadly, quite a common phenomenon.

In Pablo Larrain's exquisite new film Spencer, it jut so happens that the couple keeping it together are decidedly un-common, class-structurally at least, because they are the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Kristen Stewart in Spencer. Picture: Pablo Larrain

Kristen Stewart in Spencer. Picture: Pablo Larrain

Set over three days in the Christmas of 1991, the Royal Family are coming together to spend the festive season at Sandringham Castle on the Norfolk Coast.

Beloved by French audiences thanks to her work in obscure and critically adored European films, American actress Kristen Stewart is both unrecognisable and unparalleled in this lustrous and scorching performance as The Peoples' Princess.

Any trace of her lip-biting Twilight character is gone, forgotten, even forgiven, after this passionately-felt piece of work as a princess on the verge.

Chilean director Larrain has built his career upon biographical filmmaking, coming to international attention with No in 2012, directing Gael Garcia Bernal as the advertising executive who took on Pinochet's regime, and following it up directing Natalie Portman's Jackie Kennedy in the 2016 film Jackie.

Between them, Larrain and Kristen Stewart have constructed a very human and fallible Princess Diana, constrained by the life she chose for herself, desperate to flee but still determined to be a present mother to sons William and Harry.

As the film opens, Diana (Stewart) is zipping through the lush green fields and hedgerows of the countryside in her open-topped sports car. She is enjoying the drive, and yet, she is lost. That's not only a metaphor - she does have to stop at a cafe to ask for directions, to the open-mouthed shock of all the patrons inside.

In the final moments of her freedom, before the staff and security of the Royal Family close around her, Diana pulls over in a field and liberates a scarecrow of its coat.

It's the scarecrow from her old family property - the Spencers lived just a few fields over from Sandringham - and Diana is feeling homesick for what she left behind.

Diana isn't just out-of-sorts because her husband (Jack Farthing as Charles) has given his mistress Camilla a string of pearls the exact match of the set he's also given Diana, but it doesn't help, as she tells her friend and lady-in-waiting Maggie (Sally Hawkins).

She feels observed and imprisoned, particularly by the new Sandringham butler Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), who has had Diana's curtains sewn closed and has fired Maggie for being too encouraging of Diana's rule-breaking.

Someone has left a biography of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's ill-fated second wife, and she (Amy Mason) appears to Diana as the princess over-identifies with Boleyn's sad tale of a wife killed to make way for her king husband's mistress to become his next wife.

Actually, at this stage, Diana has no idea that escape is even possible. All she knows is that she must endure. Endure the silent family dinner where her belligerence comes under the eye of the Queen (Stella Gonet).

She doesn't see a future, though as she explains to her boys (Jack Nielen as William and Freddie Spry as Harry), in their family there is no future or past or present, just presents, and single-tense. And tension.

The wordplay of the screenplay is by Steven Knight, who earned an Oscar nomination for Dirty Pretty Things and is one of the series creators behind Peaky Binders. It is full of wit, quite the challenge considering how silent and internalised the Royal Family are.

Diana did love her pop music and a few joyous numbers feature, but present in every scene is the jazz score of Johnny Greenwood, a musical signpost to Diana's moods.

Larrain's production team use lush real-life locales to stand in for Sandringham, including the lovely Nordkirchen Castle in Germany, and their interiors are a mood all to themselves.

With The Crown making everybody experts on royal history, and doing it so well, you might ask who needs yet another insight into the marital failings of our future king, but Larrain and Knight's focus on a handful of days is a hard punch in a velvet glove.

Her relationship with food is unflinchingly explored, something of a weapon, one of the few this character feels she has in her control, and with Sean Harris playing the family's head chef as part of this weaponised metaphor, but also one of the few sympathetic figures in the House.

There is additional weight to Stewart's performance due to her own fractured relationship to fame, the actress pursued and documented by the world gossip magazines following a meteoric ascension when the Twilight films took off. This is the most mature of her performances to date.

This story Exquisite take on a familiar tale first appeared on The Canberra Times.