During her Christmas holidays with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, Diana (Kristen Stewart) decides to leave her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). As she walks the corridors, she is visited by various members of the royal household (Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins) as the pressure of her decision mounts...
When you step back and look at the drama and soap opera antics that have surrounded the British Royal Family, it's not hard to understand how they come to have so many adaptations for stage and screen. It being royalty, the tension is always higher, the drama is always more arch, and the scenery is always grander. We expect heightened circumstances in our royal content, and 'Spencer' understands that living in this environment can and is often crushing for the soul.
As Pablo Larrain's camera glides eerily over Sandringham in the opening titles and stalks Kristen Stewart through the drafty corridors, you sense how terrifying it is to be constantly examined, perused, assessed, and watched - even when it's supposed to be among those who care for you, especially more so with them. Indeed, what 'Spencer' gets at better than, say, 'The Crown', is how truly cold and almost inhuman the very notion of royalty is. There's a scene with Jack Farthing, who plays Prince Charles, that almost feels like an alien trying to understand human emotions and communication methods - all of it done inside a billiards room.
Steven Knight's screenplay makes not attempt at embellishing anything from the royal tabloid, because 'Spencer' is embellishment through and through. There are definiable, real-life characters involved, yet they're portrayed not as personalities but as archetypes. Sean Harris, in a rare performance where he's not playing someone sinister or threatening, is the kindly cook. Timothy Spall plays the stuffy but ultimately well-meaning butler. Sally Hawkins is the gentle chambermaid / dresser. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles are far off, distant, encased in pomp and circumstance, and when they do emerge from this, they're the weird ones.
Stewart's performance tends to verge on histrionic at times, but it doesn't feel like it's showboating or doing it for the sake of it. Quite the opposite. We feel her maddening frustration and the unbearable weight of her circumstances. It manifests itself in some truly disturbing imagery, combined with scenes that detail the ravages of her mental illness with eating disorders. Likewise, in later parts of the movie, Stewart is visited by ghosts of the royal past, not to mention visions of her life before and beyond. Truly, the movie rests on her incredible performance and it's not all that surprising that award recognition is undoubtedly in the future. Stewart throws herself entirely into the piece, and for whatever qualms there might be about an American playing an English royal, they're largely irrelevant as 'Spencer' exists in the realm of fantasy.
That may appear like it's cheapening, or even making light of the situation, but is it any worse than what 'The Crown' does? If anything, 'The Crown' has had some of the most sympathetic casting for real-life figures and rewritten entire chapters of people's lives to fit into narrative. In 'Spencer', it is ardently pushing a fairytale, and like any fairytale, it is made up of darkened rooms, long shadows, ghosts, and a princess in distress.