Review: Kristen Stewart explores Princess Diana’s inner turmoil in ‘Spencer’

The creative fascination with the late Princess Diana continues. 

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Film Summary: Spencer

Content: High. A turbulent weekend for Princess Diana becomes an exhilarating exploration of emotional challenge.

Entertainment: High. Thanks to daring storytelling by director Pablo Larrain and a brave performance from Kristen Stewart, the film entertains as it ponders.

Message: Medium. While the film comments on the impact of celebrity, its focus remains on the emotional layers that define one woman's life.

Relevance: High. Any chance to see a filmmaker and actress deliver such strong work is always worthwhile.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After experiencing this film, ask yourselves why we continue to be fascinated by this woman's life, and what else we wish we knew.

With specials and series on television, musicals on stage and movies in theaters, creatives can’t get enough of this magical woman who still captivates the world more than 25 years after her tragic death. Not since Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis has the mystique of celebrity so captured the show business imagination.

But how much do we really know about her? And what else could have happened in her life to lead to her choices. With such lingering questions, it’s no surprise that moviemaker Pablo Larrain — who took a similar look inside the grief Jackie experienced after JFK’s assassination — would now focus on a pivotal weekend when Diana considers freeing herself from the confines of royal life and marriage to Prince Charles. 

Sustaining a sense of mystery around Diana’s life challenges Larrain does this in different ways than when exploring Jackie’s reactions. While the former first lady suffered in private, media fascination with Diana made sure we sensed every emotion. By the time the royal marriage ended, television audiences had viewed hours of Diana explaining her side of the story and, since her death, numerous projects have retold the story, most recently the popular series “The Crown.” 

Rather than repeat what others offer, Larrain dares to rethink what could have happened inside Diana’s head and heart as she struggles with questions of where she belongs.

The filmmaker’s choices work. Rather than recreate conversations Diana may have had with Charles, or the Queen, Larrain primarily focuses on the inner battles within the princess herself. This Christmas celebration in the country is less about possible confrontation between a troubled lady and people she cannot reach than it becomes a fascinating journey through the dimensions of emotional fragility. We may learn less about what actually occurred between a woman and others in her life than we experience a creative attempt to explain how this lady’s life reached such a climactic corner.

Making all of this work on screen is Kristen Stewart’s dynamic portrayal of the complex Diana. While the actress captures the mannerisms and vocal qualities that detail a public image, this performance is far more than effective impersonation. Stewart reaches into the depths of her acting soul to reveal layers of fear that Diana faces, from her relationship with food to her loving exchanges with her children; from her resistance to discipline to her hunger for friendship. Stewart makes us believe we are seeing this character for the first time, leaving behind our memories of other performances. And, since the actress is on camera almost every moment, she sustains our interest in the performance, and the film, by continually injecting fresh interpretations.

No matter if you follow every look at Diana, or if her story is new to you, “Spencer” will enlighten and entertain with deliberate surprise.

“Spencer” runs 1 hours, 57 minutes, is rated “R” for “language,” and is showing in theaters.