Pablo Larraín’s unsettling biopic Spencer takes us inside the head of an emotionally fragile young woman ill at ease with her enormous fame, imprisoned by her own beauty, and haunted by her inability to find privacy or a sense of freedom in the cage of celebrity that surrounds her. This story—identified in an opening title as “a fable from a true tragedy”—is, of course, that of Princess Diana, captured by Larraín at a moment in 1991 when her marriage to Prince Charles and her relationship with the royal family had disintegrated to the point of open, if chilly, warfare. But it’s also an evident parable for the public life of the film’s star, Kristen Stewart, who, like Diana, found herself the object of overwhelming media scrutiny at a very young age and afterward chafed against the rigid confines of her early, unsustainable star persona.
Last week, Stewart told an interviewer that she has only made five films, out of the 50-plus in her filmography, that could be regarded as what she calls “a top-to-bottom beautiful piece of work.” The only two she named specifically were Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, both art-house films directed by the French auteur Olivier Assayas, the first of which made her the first American actress to win a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar. In a classically Kristen Stewart–esque deflection of the publicity spotlight, she did not enumerate Spencer among the handful of great films she believes herself to have worked on … during a press interview being conducted for the express purpose of promoting Spencer. Nor did she exclude the possibility that her new movie might have made it onto the “fine, these were good” list. When pressed to reveal the other three titles, she said she would have to go home and look at her credit list, but that the candidates were “few and far between.”
This tone of self-deprecation, and by extension deprecation of the vehicles she appears in and sometimes the film industry at large, has always characterized Stewart’s relationship to her own media image, and to the media. In 2019, while she was promoting Seberg—another biopic about a doomed young female celebrity hounded by paparazzi—one journalist asked why Stewart was throwing herself so wholeheartedly into publicity for that particular film, given her well-known discomfort on the red-carpet promotion circuit. Stewart’s reply: “Maybe it’s just been a minute since I was really proud of a smaller movie that I’ve done.”
You don’t have to dig far into the K-Stew interview archive to find moments where she freely admits that not all her past or even present projects have been as wisely chosen, or turned out as well, as she wished. Unlike most movie stars on press tours, she regularly commits faux pas that must have publicists everywhere smiting their foreheads, though she delivers these nonspecific implied disses with a light touch that keeps her from sounding ungrateful or petty. This was not always the case in the Twilight days, when the glare of the media spotlight was harsher and Stewart’s relationship to her own fame less secure. Her tendency to stammer through interviews and slouch her way down the red carpet struck some observers as evidence of arrogance and entitlement, when in retrospect it looks more like a shy teenage girl’s instinctive self-protection.
Touchingly, Stewart always stands up for the vampires-in-love franchise that made her a reluctant movie star starting in 2008. In a 2015 conversation with Patti Smith in Interview magazine, she looked back at the five Twilight films with both affection and an awareness of what made that objectively silly series so seductive for its fans (a group that included, for most of the installments, me): “[T]he intention is so fucking pure in a weird way. Anybody who wants to talk shit about Twilight, I completely get it, but there’s something there that I’m endlessly, and to this day, fucking proud of.”
I’m with her: to reflexively pan the Twilight movies is to miss out not only on hours of campy fun (Michael Sheen’s vampire-pope villain alone!), but on the genuine thrill of watching two movie stars rise fully formed from the moody Pacific Northwest fog. Stewart and Robert Pattinson were perfectly matched, not just in their near-comical symmetry of bone structure, but in their vast overqualification for their roles and their fierce and utterly sincere commitment to them. Twilight on film (I can’t speak to the books, having barely been able to finish the first one) is a deliriously pleasurable wish-fulfillment fantasy aimed primarily at teenage girls, an audience that’s accustomed to setting trends while being mocked for its enthusiasm for those very trends. Now that both Pattinson and Stewart have both embarked on artistically challenging careers working with A-list and even avant-garde directors, the Twilight fandom’s early passion for that franchise’s smolderingly charismatic stars seems prescient, when in fact they were simply right all along.
Because Stewart’s early image is so entwined with that of the brooding Bella Swan, it’s easy to forget how long she had already been acting in movies when that series thrust her into the spotlight. The daughter of two below-the-line industry professionals (her father made his name as a TV producer, her mother as a script supervisor), she was discovered onstage at age 8 in a school Christmas play. Her first, fleeting film appearance, in a movie her mother was working on, came at age 9. By 10 she had her first significant role, opposite Patricia Clarkson in the indie drama The Safety of Objects, and one year after that she played Jodie Foster’s daughter in the David Fincher home-invasion thriller Panic Room. It was a demanding part that required Stewart to simulate a diabetic seizure and interact with Foster in close quarters at a high pitch of emotional and physical intensity for nearly every moment she was on screen. Yet the least panicked character in Panic Room, including the chaotic trio of home invaders, is Stewart’s: It’s the quiet, watchful Sarah who keeps her stressed-out mother from cracking up over the course of their nightlong ordeal.
Unlike many successful juvenile actors, Stewart never went through a teenage slump. She continued to work steadily throughout her teens, though some vehicles were more suited than others to her gift for restrained intensity. In Jon Favreau’s 2005 family movie Zathura, she was the responsible older sister of the two mischievous boys who were the focus of the story; she spent much of the film frozen into an ice sculpture by outer-space creatures called Zorgons. The same year, in the well-reviewed TV movie Speak, she played a high school freshman who goes silent after being raped by an older student. The New York Times credited the movie’s success to her performance, noting that her role was “not an easy acting feat, since because of the nature of the story she has a limited number of lines.” Stewart has always excelled at playing characters who either speak little or who, when they speak, say something other than what they mean. She is a master of misdirection, deflection, and pregnant glances—all techniques that come into play in Spencer, a movie in which she spends most of her time on screen alone.
Stewart has called the shape of her career since Twilight “the most random game of hopscotch.” Snow White and the Huntsman, her 2012 attempt to make a blockbuster action movie, earned dismal reviews, many of which went out of their way to dismiss her. One critic wrote that the movie boasted “truly magnificent performances—minus Stewart, of course.” Another scoffed that she “scarcely seems to have more on her mind than who might take her to the senior prom.” At that year’s Razzies, she was “awarded” the prize for Worst Actress for both Snow White and the Huntsman and the final Twilight installment, Breaking Dawn: Part 2. A behind-the-scenes scandal broke out on the Snow White set when paparazzi photographed her kissing Rupert Sanders, the film’s 41-year-old married director. The scandal faded after both parties issued prompt and embarrassed apologies, but it was an unwelcome swerve into the tabloid spotlight for Stewart, especially given how secretive she and Pattinson had always been about their four-year-long relationship during the Twilight years (“We will never talk about it,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2019. “Never. Because it’s ours.”)
In recent years, Stewart has opened up about her personal life. In a very public coming-out moment while hosting Saturday Night Live in early 2017, she responded to Donald Trump’s long-ago mean tweets about her cheating scandal with a cheeky, “If you didn’t like me then, you’re definitely not going to like me now, ’cause I’m hosting SNL and I’m like, so gay, dude.” After dating high-profile women like the singer St. Vincent and the model Stella Maxwell, Stewart has spent the past two years with the screenwriter, producer, and actress Dylan Meyer, whom she recently announced she plans to marry. For someone with a history of wriggling away from the media’s gaze, Stewart has been surprisingly forthcoming about her sexual fluidity. She has said that her resistance to being photographed in the company of a romantic partner “changed when I started dating a girl. I was like, ‘Actually, to hide this provides the implication that I’m not down with it or I’m ashamed of it,’ so I had to alter how I approached being in public.” In speaking about her work, too, Stewart has become much more open than the avoidant red-carpet mumbler of the Twilight years. When she discusses her approach to acting or her relationship to her past roles, she is remarkably perceptive about the invisible but exacting craft involved in “doing something as absurd as pretending to be someone else.”
After the Snow White fiasco, Stewart turned her back on blockbusters (a genre to which she’s only very recently returned) to take on serious roles in artistically ambitious movies: the two films with Assayas, the Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice opposite Julianne Moore, the Kelly Reichardt anthology film Certain Women. Yet even after distinguishing herself in multiple respectable-to-great indie and foreign films, Stewart has found it mystifyingly hard to escape being identified with the character of Twilight’s passive, boy-crazy Bella Swan. Whenever she delivers a strong performance in an offbeat movie, as she has now done close to a dozen times in the post-Twilight years, there is a chorus of conversations about how, would you look at that, the vampire chick can actually act! This repeated memory-holing of Stewart’s past 13 years of work has not happened in anything like the same way to her co-star Robert Pattinson, who has by now redefined himself in the public imagination as the darling of auteur directors like David Cronenberg, Claire Denis, the Safdie brothers, and Robert Eggers.
With Spencer, Stewart’s highest-profile movie in years and the first to position her in the conversation about a Best Actress Oscar (she’s widely considered the front-runner), the actress’s complicated relationship to her own public persona finds its counterpart in the struggles of her character. Stewart plays Diana as a misunderstood iconoclast chafing against the constraints of a stiflingly conventional system; it’s a stellar performance (in a sometimes less-than-stellar movie) in part because of all we know about Stewart’s own discomfort with the role of show business princess.
Spencer is a curious sort of biopic, not a The Crown–style march through British royal history but a trippy tone poem about one miserable Christmas holiday as seen through the distorted perception of a damaged young woman on the verge of a crackup.
Most of the characters besides Diana, including Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), the queen (Stella Gonet), and a fictional royal equerry named Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), are blurs in comparison to the psychological precision with which we get to know the protagonist. The other members of the royal family flit in and out of her consciousness and ours, making brief appearances to scold or judge the princess and then receding from sight, so that the viewer comes to share in Diana’s experience of profound isolation.
The princess can let down her guard only with her affectionate preteen sons and with the two servants of the royal household she has come to trust: her beloved dressing maid Maggie (the always-superb Sally Hawkins) and the hard-driving but kindly head of the kitchen staff, Darren (Sean Harris), who tries in vain to outsmart Diana’s barely hidden eating disorder by preparing her favorite dishes. (Fancy food has never looked so repellent as it does in the long, mostly silent dining room scenes with the impossibly uptight royal family.)
A sequence late in the movie has Diana tromping across the frost-chilled Sandringham grounds in a gold-and-white mermaid gown and rubber Wellington boots to visit her long-abandoned childhood home. This sequence pushes the movie into straight-up horror territory, especially with Jonny Greenwood’s disquieting score, all jagged chords and abstract jazz horns. It’s never fully explained why the Spencers’ ancestral estate has become a crumbling ruin swarming with rats; Spencer is a movie unconcerned with elucidating the backstory of its main character or situating the viewer in the context of Diana and Charles’ marriage. There are no conventional flashbacks or flashforwards, no written intertitles at the end to remind us how everything turned out, and no exposition dumps about the state of Buckingham Palace intrigue circa 1991. Even Diana’s romantic rival, Camilla Parker Bowles, is seen only once, from afar, in a scene that makes no mention of her name.
Like Larraín’s 2016 biopic Jackie, Spencer is a one-woman show built around a bravura performance. But unlike Natalie Portman’s mannered re-creation of the always-in-control Jacqueline Kennedy, Stewart’s Diana emerges as a fragile, flawed but utterly believable character. Stewart nails the technical elements of playing a very well-known figure: Her posh English accent is impeccable, and she captures Diana’s hunched shoulders, her childlike way of walking, and her famous trick of lowering her head to peer up at her interlocutor. But what makes her performance rise above mere impersonation is her subterranean exploration of Diana’s chaotic inner state.
Many of the princess’s self-destructive choices in Spencer are calculated acts of mini-rebellion, designed to confuse, confound, or annoy her in-laws and their royal minders. She switches up the outfits she’s been assigned to wear by her stylists, raids the castle pantry on midnight binges, and tells one importuning maid to “Leave me. I wish to masturbate.” It’s in these spiky moments of resistance that Stewart’s superb performance—the sole reason for this film to exist, but more than reason enough—reaches its heights. Like Diana, she has spent over a decade trying to figure out who she is outside the judgmental gaze of the public eye. But unlike the doomed princess, she has found her way through to the other side.