As Princess Diana, Kristen Stewart is at once glorious and tragic, reaching out and yet shutting off, hungry and anorexic, trying hard to hold on to her sense of self as her grip on everything around her gets shaky.
In the column Let’s Talk About Women, Sneha Bengani looks at films, the world of entertainment, and popular media through the feminist lens. Because it’s important. Because it’s needed. And because we’re not doing it enough.
Though several women have played Diana Spencer before, it is hard to imagine her in anyone else’s skin after watching Pablo Larrain’s most recent take on the late Princess of Wales. Kristen Stewart becomes the enigmatic royal so completely, her Bella Swan from Twilight feels from another lifetime.
Though it has been just 13 years since Twilight made Stewart a global phenomenon, she has been through so much and done such diverse work in this time, the woman you see on screen as the troubled British queen in line takes you by surprise. As Diana, Stewart is full of exquisite mystique, pulsating like an open wound. When first I sat down to watch Spencer, I thought I knew what to expect of Stewart. After all, I have grown up with her, watching her. Into the Wild, the Twilight films, Clouds of Sills Maria, Personal Shopper, Seberg, Charlie’s Angels, Happiest Season. But Spencer is unlike anything she has done so far. She is so real and so raw in the film, she is a revelation.
In an interview, Stewart described Diana as, “She was a combination of things that don’t necessarily go hand in hand.” It is this dissonance that Stewart plays with great magnificence throughout the film.
Even in the last few seconds of the film, she continues to be a bundle of contradictions. Her lips try to muster a smile as she overlooks river Thames, but her eyes remain deeply sad as if she knows that the worst is yet to come.
Stewart deserves the Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her career-defining performance in Spencer and all that follows the win. However, so do Larrain, writer Steven Knight, and music composer Johnny Greenwood. For they are as essential to the film as her. Like every great movie, Spencer is the result of stellar teamwork. Together, the four of them (along with costume designer Jacqueline Durran and cinematographer Claire Mathon) elevate the narrative to a crescendo from where it flows unbidden, ceases to be Diana’s story alone, and becomes every woman’s who has ever been in the public eye, scrutinized or gaslighted.
Spencer is rich in symbolism in ways simple and extraordinary. There is the pearl necklace that Prince Charles gives Diana for Christmas, exactly like the one he gifts his amour, Camilla Parker Bowles, who he would eventually marry. Forced to wear it, she feels strangulated by it, as she does by her dead marriage, the monarchy that has been thrust upon her, and everything else that comes with it. She tries to give it away to a member of the staff, fantasies about eating the pearls with her soup at the Christmas Eve family dinner, only to finally rip it off her neck during a forbidden visit to whatever remains of her childhood home. She does this right after contemplating throwing herself off a flight of stairs.
Then there’s the book on Anne Boleyn, purposely kept on Diana’s bedside to caution her. Incidentally, Diana was distantly related to Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who was beheaded for alleged adultery and treason. There’s a scarecrow too, dressed in her father’s jacket, on the hill where she used to play as a child. Diana rediscovers it when she’s desperately looking for an anchor. The tattered jacket provides her company and hope at a time when little else does.
She begins to believe it’s watching over her and her boys. She talks to it when utterly alone, about things she dare not talk to anyone else. She makes her escape wearing it and as she leaves, dresses the scarecrow in her clothes instead. A sore thumb sticking out, warding off everyone. A cautionary tale. A mark of her breaking free, her return to being Spencer.
But my favorite is the recurring pheasant analogy. The film opens with several military trucks passing over a dead pheasant on their way to the Sandringham Estate for Christmas, an ominous foreshadowing of what’s to come. Throughout Spencer, Diana is obsessed with the well-being of the pheasants. In one scene, she asks the royal head chef about what happens to the ones that get gunned down during Boxing Day. “They are bred to be shot, Mam,” he says, adding, “If it wasn’t for the gun, they wouldn’t be there. The ones that don’t get shot, just get run over. They are not the brightest of birds.” “Beautiful but not very bright,” she responds as if describing herself.
In another scene, Diana’s having a quiet moment on the estate grounds on Christmas evening when she spots a stray pheasant. She immediately tells it, “Oh go on. Fly away before it’s too late.” In the final act, the analogy turns literal. She becomes one with the pheasants and stands in the line of fire, in a desperate attempt to save the birds, herself, and her sons.
Spencer begins with Diana getting lost, driving away into the unknown. “Excuse me. I’m looking for somewhere. I have absolutely no idea where I am. There are no signs anywhere. Where am I?” she asks at a roadside eatery that sells fish and chips. And it ends with her driving again. But this time to freedom. With her sons in tow, all of them singing loudly to ‘All I Need Is A Miracle’ playing on the car stereo.
Stewart’s win, therefore, becomes all the more crucial. Because much like Diana, she stands alone — the only one at the Oscars representing Spencer, all that went into making it, and everything it stands for. Because what Sally Hawkins’ royal dresser Maggie tells Diana as she confesses her love for her holds true of the film too: “What it needs is love. Plenty of it.”