Kristen Stewart’s Diana pierces hearts in gothic horror spin ‘Spencer’

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Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Kristen Stuart stars in the film “Spencer”. The movie debuts in theaters today.

By Carolina Garibay, buzz Editor

Tradition. That’s what the Crown is all about, and everybody knows it. But no one knows it better than Princess Diana, who for her entire life, had her role drilled into her time and time again. But in Pablo Larraín’s, “Spencer,” it’s clear that Diana just simply isn’t a woman of tradition.

The film’s beginning shows a title card reading, “A fable from true tragedy,” reminding us that this film isn’t going to be an exact retelling of Diana’s Christmas at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in 1991, nor is it going to be the royal fairytale many of us were shown.

In fact, more than anything, “Spencer” is a psychological horror movie about a young woman trapped in a system that will do everything to not help her.

The film opens with a dark, frosted countryside, featuring soldiers carrying large guns on their backs. These soldiers are lifting heavy boxes of what one might reasonably assume to be guns into a large estate, but no, it’s just food, lots of food. The royal chefs are preparing for the three-day Christmas weekend, which the royals have decided to spend in the cold, bleak Sandringham estate.

Not long after are we introduced to our Princess Diana, played with beautifully and gracefully by Kristen Stewart. Diana is not only late to the Sandringham Estate, but she’s also lost. “Where the f— am I?” are the first words we hear from Diana, immediately establishing what we already knew: Diana is not your typical royal family member.

Just as it always has, tradition continues to control Diana right upon her arrival at the estate. She’s told by Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall) she has to be weighed before dinner. According to the tradition that’s been around since Queen Victoria, all guests are required to weigh in on old scales before and after leaving, the point being they’ve only enjoyed themselves if they’ve gained three pounds.

For Diana, whose bulimia was known throughout the royal family by 1991, says screenwriter Steven Knight, this tradition was particularly harmful. But no one is greater than tradition, not even the people’s princess, and we’re reminded of that time and time again throughout the film.

“Here, there is only one tense,” Diana tells her sons Harry and William. “There is no future. Past and present are the same thing.” The past is always how it’s going to be, and there’s no room for change.

But Diana is a woman of spontaneity and adventure, and we see that through her consistent breaking of the rules throughout the film, whether that be by being late, letting William and Harry open extra Christmas presents on Christmas Day instead of Christmas Eve (“like normal people,” say her kids) or taking excursions to her old house across the way, when she isn’t really supposed to leave the estate.

At this point, though, Diana doesn’t have the energy or the want to care about rules. By this time, both Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and Diana’s marriage is stale and they’ve both had romantic relationships outside their marriage. Diana’s constant rule breaking, plus the added tension between Diana, Charles and the Queen (Stella Gonet), created an aura of suspense among the audience because you didn’t really know who was going to snap first.

But unlike “The Crown” and other portrayals of the royal family that amplify the voices of the Queen and her kids before anyone else, “Spencer” is Diana’s story and only give a few lines to Charles and his mother, while the Queen is as dull and boring as ever. The few times Charles does speak are bitter and cruel, making fun of Diana’s eating disorder and criticizing her for not being the perfect princess she’s supposed to be, reminding Diana that there has to be two of her – one for “the people” and one for herself.

Stewart, though not the most obvious choice to bring Diana’s fragility and anguish to life, proved to be one of the few people who can make Diana her own while simultaneously making her someone we feel like we’ve seen before.

Her performance brings us into the complex the mind of Diana. She has recurring hallucinations of Ann Boleyn, whose tragic fate seems to mirror Diana’s feared future. At one point she even says to chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris), “Will they kill me, do you think?” She begs for support, and the audience feels desperate to provide it, which is part of what makes this film so heart-piercing.

Watching Stewart in the best performance of her career on the big screen is both a treat and a privilege. Viewing this weekend in Diana’s life through a horror lens adds a new layer of compassion for the princess and anger at the royal family’s indifference toward her struggles I didn’t think was possible. Stewart’s Diana makes her way into your heart and mind in a way that will have you wiping away tears you didn’t know you were shedding by the end of the film.

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