The “Happiest Season” actress delivers career-best work in Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer” (in theaters Nov. 5), a haunting drama that closely follows the late royal over the course of a stifling Christmas holiday in 1991. Billed as “a fable based on a true tragedy,” the film depicts Diana as a caged bird trapped inside a “Shining”-esque manor: with stone-faced staffers monitoring what she eats, weighs and wears, and sewing up her bedroom curtains after a near brush with nosy photographers.
“There was no way to play this part perfectly,” Stewart said Wednesday afternoon in a virtual conversation with Diana Sanchez, senior director of film at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Spencer” is screening after stops at the Venice and Telluride festivals. “Therefore, it was actually easier to not be so intimidated and so daunted.”
The movie occasionally descends into full-on body horror, with a deeply unnerving dinner scene that will have you clutching your pearls. But “Spencer” wisely avoids hammy monologues and shouting matches between Diana and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), keeping the camera almost squarely focused on Stewart, who imbues her Lady Di with warmth and quiet resolve.
“I’ve always gotten the impression that she’s a livewire,” Stewart said. “She has this incredibly disarming, casual, contagious, beautiful, empathetic energy that reaches out. But at the same time, you always feel like there’s something wrong, like she’s protecting something.”
Stewart, who has already garnered Oscar talk from awards prognosticators, speaks in hushed tones throughout the film, striking an English accent that will surely be debated among linguists. Even more impressive are her mannerisms: perfectly capturing Diana’s willowy gait, darting eyes and shy slouch. She often appears to hug herself – a choice that Stewart made to reflect how alone and isolated Diana might have felt inside the rigid royal family.
“I really wanted to sometimes, like, hold myself together when nobody else would, physically,” Stewart explained. “She’s got this languid, beautiful floaty thing, but then she’s also quite angular and she juts. I just think everything about her is always like holding, holding, holding. So in the moments we could really release her, it felt incredible.”
“Spencer” is heavily fictionalized, with dazzling dream sequences featuring another tortured royal, Anne Boleyn, and imagined exchanges between Diana and her young sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). Larraín is far more concerned with capturing the tender and playful spirit of Diana rather than history itself, which is part of what makes the film and Stewart’s lived-in performance so spellbinding.
“We can imagine and dream and write poetry about how she makes us feel,” Stewart said. “I think she provides this incredibly lush and complicated terrain to make art in. She is somebody who is so inspiring and changed the world.”
Given that Diana died in a 1997 car crash at just 36 years old, “I’ve been asked a lot about whether it’s cool to try and tell someone’s story when they’re not around – somebody who was already so invaded (by the media),” Stewart, 31, said. “We really don’t profess to know anything or present any new information. … My hope is that because we made it so personal, we’re not traipsing on (her legacy).”