'Spencer' review: Kristen Stewart is a knockout as Princess Diana

Stewart plays Princess Di in this surrealistic look at her frustration with the tradition of the Royals in the waning days of her marriage.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Kristen Stewart dazzles in "Spencer," giving a career-best performance as Princess Diana, playing her as a trapped, suffocated victim angling to do anything she can to escape the constraints of the British Royal Family. 

Director Pablo Larraín, who took on another 20th century female icon 2016's "Jackie," paints Princess Di's plight as a sort of surrealistic nightmare. She sees a way out and knows her door is closing, and Stewart and Larraín find the light in Diana that would eventually be snuffed out far too soon. 

Kristen Stewart in "Spencer."

It's Christmas 1991 and the royal family is gathered for the holiday at the sprawling Sandringham Estate in the English countryside. Diana's marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is all but finished and the thought of going through all the pageantry of a Royal Christmas is enough to make Diana wretch. But she goes through it because tradition is tradition and she can only put up so much of a fight. 

At the estate, she's watched over closely by Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall, excellent), the eyes and ears of the grounds. When she bonds a little too closely with her dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), Maggie is sent packing. 

As Diana's discontent grows, so does her rebellion. At dinner she rips off her string of pearls and chokes them down one by one as they fall into her soup. And while getting dressed she clips at her arms with wire cutters, just to feel something real, just to feel alive after having every facet of her life decided and controlled by others. She envisions herself as a modern Anne Boleyn, the 16th century wife of King Henry VIII, who was put on trial for treason, found guilty and executed by beheading.  

"Spencer" — guided by a tense, constricting score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood — is a bold imagining of what may have been that liberally plays with the truth and doesn't present itself as fact. (It's labeled up front as "a fable from a true tragedy.") It's more concerned with Diana's headspace, and by singling out a few days and focusing on that small time period, "Spencer" does a better job of presenting the breadth of Diana's character than most biopics, which clumsily try to cram an entire life into a few hours.

Stewart not only looks the part but she slips seamlessly into the role of a loving mother (William and Harry are young boys at the time), a frustrated wife and a beaming presence with plenty to offer the world. It's a classy and contained star performance, powerful without being showy. Spall is every bit as good as the leading lady, playing a loyal, buttoned up soldier of tradition, and others (Stella Gonet as Queen Elizabeth II, Sean Harris as the Royal Head Chef) do fine work in small roles.

"Spencer" knows that Diana is headed on a tragic path. Its triumph is that it allows her one last joyride — rooftop down, arms in the air — to break free before the inevitable comes knocking. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama 

'Spencer'

GRADE: A-

Rated R: for some language

Running time: 116 minutes

In theaters