There was a time in Kristen Stewart’s career when she exuded an extreme discomfort with being famous. She appeared to dislike being a celebrity almost as much as Princess Diana seemed to dislike being a royal. These are two women separated by generations, cultures, and expectations. What Stewart was confronted with as the star of the Twilight franchise (her high-profile relationship with co-star Robert Pattinson and the media’s general obsession with and objectification of young women actors) is not the same as what Diana faced as a prisoner in a loveless marriage, chained to a family who dismissed her as she suffocated under the weight of their scrutiny and the public’s. In Spencer, which debuted this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, Stewart plays the late Diana, Princess of Wales, as she navigates an especially nightmarish three-day Christmas weekend in 1991 with the royal family at their famed Sandringham Estate. To compare the two prominent women’s real lives may be a stretch, but on-screen, there’s no separating KStew from Lady Di.
To compare the two prominent women’s real lives may be a stretch, but on-screen, there’s no separating KStew from Lady Di.
For Spencer, Stewart worked with a dialect coach to nail down Diana’s accent (whether or not she mastered the voice is debatable); she also made a point to compensate for her height (the actress is inches shorter than her subject) with her posture and mannerisms, Stewart said during a TIFF “In Conversation With..” digital event on Wednesday. But it’s in those physical choices that I couldn’t help but continue to see Stewart. (Like in Spencer’s most on-the-nose montage where we see Diana facing a wall of press and screaming photographers. Stewart tilts her head in the way we’ve all seen Diana do it in countless hours of archival footage, but the grimace on her face is all her own.) Stewart has always had a frenetic on-screen presence, with natural nervous tics that trickle into her roles. Mostly, the specific brand of her shy discomfort is endearing — especially since she’s seemed to relax into her fame in recent years and stopped taking herself so seriously — but in this role, when she’s supposed to be portraying Diana’s specific brand of shy discomfort, it’s distracting.
“She’s such a live wire and somebody who has this incredibly disarming, casual, contagious, beautiful, empathetic, warm energy that reaches out, but at the same time you always feel like there’s something wrong — she’s protecting something,” Stewart said of Diana. Stewart does have the same enigmatic pull that Diana did (she could be describing herself in the above quote) and in certain moments in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, the similarities really work. In others, it just feels like you’re watching Stewart play herself playing Princess Diana (a point made succinctly and hilariously by my friend and Gawker critic, Sarah Hagi, who was in the same Spencer TIFF screening as me).
— Sarah Hagi (@KindaHagi) September 10, 2021
“You never know what’s going to happen. She walks into the room and the earth starts shaking,” Stewart continued on Wednesday about Diana’s unpredictability. “So I knew there was no way to play this part perfectly and therefore it was easier… to not be so intimidated and so daunted. I could only be my version… and hope [that if I was] both me and her in some sort of weird way, it was going to be the best version.”
Maybe it’s my age. I’m a millennial who consumed all things Twilight at its peak and has had a watchful eye on Stewart ever since — scandal, public revelations, celeb transformation, and all. I think I’ve seen too much. While many critics are loving Stewart in Spencer, I wasn’t able to separate Stewart’s quirks from Diana’s distinctive smirk (which she attempts to perfect throughout the film). Stewart is giving, as Vulture put it, “remarkable translucence” but instead of getting lost in Stewart’s transparency, I found myself wondering how calculated she was about every movement. With every restrained step and breathy sentence, I could see the wheels turning in Stewart’s head.
You could blame it on her status as one of the most famous people in the world, but many famous actresses are able to disappear into roles playing other famous people (see Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in another TIFF 2021 release, The Eyes of Tammy Faye). And other celebrities with more notoriety than Stewart have also given performances where their fame doesn’t hinder their game. Think Jennifer Lopez, whose recognisable swagger only elevated her role as a confident scamming stripper in Hustlers. Some performers are able to take the inevitable personal traits that will shine through in a character and use them as an advantage. With Stewart in Spencer, it just never felt like her inability to switch off her own peculiarities was on purpose.
There are a few glimpses of Stewart’s acting aptitude throughout Larraín’s film, which is trying its best to be something other than a hollow dissection of Diana’s mental state in the final days of her crumbling marriage to Prince Charles. Especially when she’s playing off of the two young actors portraying her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. “She wasn’t very good at protecting herself but she was very, very good at protecting them,” Stewart said about Diana’s identity as a mother, a vulnerability she knew she had to get just right. “If you don’t get that right, you do not get her right.” She’s not wrong, but during those scenes, it feels like it’s the boys who are able to pull her out of her head and become fully immersed in the portrayal, which says more about their ability than it does about hers.
There are a few glimpses of Stewart’s acting aptitude throughout Larraín’s film, which is trying its best to be something other than a hollow dissection of Diana’s mental state in the final days of her crumbling marriage to Prince Charles.
There will be many audiences who will be able to separate Stewart, someone who has grown up in the spotlight, from Diana, someone who stepped into it with reluctance and could never escape. For them, Spencer will be a triumph. Again, it is very very pretty and makes some salient points about the legacy of the royal family’s overbearing grip on women who dare to defy its impossible protocols (there are multiple fantasy sequences where Diana hallucinates Anne Boleyn). But ultimately, the film never digs deep enough past the headlines we already know, which makes this story hard to justify.
“I’ve been asked a lot about whether or not it’s cool to try to tell someone else’s story when they are not around, [especially] somebody who was already so invaded and taken from,” Stewart said. “I think that because we really don’t profess to know anything or present any new information… my hope is that because we made it so personal, we don’t feel advantageous.” It’s not that Spencer feels like it’s taking advantage of Diana or her memory, it’s more like it’s reaching for a connection that just isn’t there, like Diana desperate for warmth from a family of cold colonisers.
“She wants to be touched and she wants to feel connected and accompanied and yet she’s the most isolated and difficult to relate to personally,” Stewart said. “Sometimes I wanted to hold myself together when nobody else would — physically… She always said ‘the royal family doesn’t hug’ but to say that is a little on-the-nose so there were times where I was just like ‘just hold yourself.’” The choice to physically curl into herself as Diana is another one that felt like an instinct that is more true to her own defence mechanisms than Diana’s, and it’s an interpretation that doesn’t exactly translate on-screen. Throughout the film, Stewart is recoiling and internalising a yearning for warmth when Diana used to radiate it.
And therein lays the biggest problem at the heart of Spencer. Stewart never quite connects the part of herself playing a princess. “She wears her heart on her sleeve like no other. She can’t hide anything, but yet, we don’t know anything about her,” Stewart said, again sounding like she could be talking about herself. We don’t really know anything about either of these famous women, and yet Stewart still isn’t able to hide herself within her overly affected performance.
Timing is everything, and throughout Spencer, Princess Diana is late — purposefully or absentmindedly — which results in multiple standoffs between her and her royal handlers. Because we’re primed to root for Diana, the lateness is perceived as either powerful or endearing. For Stewart, she’s attempting to hit the perfect cadence, and she just never seems to show up on time. It’s up to the viewer to decide if that strategy is appealing or not.
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