Kristen Stewart, Diana Spencer, and the Ghost of Anne Boleyn

Does Spencer portray Princess Diana the person, or just the public image?

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in "Spencer"
Pablo Larraín / Neon / Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

In the new biopic Spencer, Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, wanders her decaying childhood home, talking with Anne Boleyn’s ghost. The beheaded second wife of King Henry VIII warns Diana of her dispensability as a royal and tells her to assert her power. It is not, strictly speaking, a faithful reproduction of history.

The surreal film from the Jackie director Pablo Larraín presents Kristen Stewart as the late ex-wife of Prince Charles in a meta bit of casting. Just as the movie’s Diana saw herself in Anne Boleyn, the audience might see Stewart in Diana’s path. Both women were publicity darlings who found themselves hounded by tabloids over the rise and fall of their fairy-tale romances.

And with Stewart’s onetime tween royalty in Twilight reflected in her performance of actual royalty, Spencer is primed to generate the first high-profile awards buzz for an actor who, it should be said, has always been great. (Her casting as Diana had its doubters, but one thing is certain: Stewart knows how to play a melancholy young woman marrying into an ancient family of pale monsters.)

Ultimately though, does the unique performance, direction, and script of this movie depict the real Princess Diana? Is it even trying to? Sophie Gilbert, David Sims, and Shirley Li discussed the film on The Review, our culture podcast. Listen to their conversation here:

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for Spencer.

David Sims: Newly released in cinemas from Pablo Larraín, the Chilean director of such films as Jackie, is an awards-tipped biopic about Princess Diana: Spencer. It stars Kristen Stewart as the Princess of Wales. It’s a sort of fantasy biopic set over a weekend in 1991, when Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles was falling apart and her relationship with the Royal Family was strained. “What if everything you knew about Princess Diana was all happening in one weekend?” That’s the basic premise here.

It’s been a bit of a divisive movie. It’s being thrust into Oscar debate: Is this Kristen Stewart’s chance at a trophy? There’s obviously lots to discuss about the way the film portrays the British Royal Family and one of the most famous people of our lifetime. The three of us are all over the map with this movie, and that reflects the critical reaction so far. I’ve heard praise and disappointment. So what do you think of it?

Shirley Li: I like anything that’s ambitious and not generic. When I was watching, it felt like I was getting drunker by the minute. You start feeling like you’re not sure whether what’s being depicted on screen is reality or in her mind. You feel drawn to it and repulsed at the same time, and I like a film that throws me for a loop. That’s the kind of experience I want from an art-house indie.

I went into it expecting what I had seen in Jackie. I already like Pablo’s work. He’s fantastic at designing a film that really understands what a character is thinking and matching that to a tone. I love that it feels very much like The Shining. And I walked away feeling unsettled, but I liked the fact that I was unsettled by it. I don’t think a general audience is really going to love this movie if they go in expecting a traditional biopic. But I loved that it was not traditional.

Sims: Sophie, I know you had a different reaction to Spencer.

Sophie Gilbert: I really wanted to love it. I had high hopes. I really loved the last season of The Crown, in which Diana’s story played a very prominent role. I thought Emma Corrin did an extraordinary job. She looked like Diana in a way that was very ethereal and spooky to me, but she also made her feel like a person. I grew up in England. I know, David, you did too.

Sims: True.

Gilbert: And in England in the ’90s there were a lot of people doing Diana impersonations, especially after the famous BBC Martin Bashir interview when she said “there were three people in her marriage.” There was endless Diana parody on TV.

Sims: Breathy. Often a very breathy impression.

Gilbert: Yes, very posh. And I love Kristen Stewart as an actor, and yet I could not see her as anything other than Kristen Stewart doing an impression of Diana in this movie. And that’s not even my problem with it. The thing that frustrated me most was the script. We have an expression in journalism that is “Show, don’t tell.” When you’re telling a story, it’s a lot more effective to let people see and deduce things from your story rather than to hammer them home. And this movie hammers them home. “Oh, it’s very cold!” “It’s very cold.” “It’s very cold …” “Oh, Camilla’s wearing the same pearls.” “The same pearls.” Over and over again, the bloody pearls. And you could show me this! You could show me the cold window. You could show me the pearls. You could show me everything. I don’t need to be told this over and over again. It just felt like hacky script writing.

Sims: The film is written by Steven Knight, a very prolific writer who has written, in my opinion, some absolutely wonderful scripts. He got an Oscar nomination for his breakout script, Dirty Pretty Things, which is a great movie. He wrote Eastern Promises. He wrote Locke, which I’ve always been fond of. But he is not a subtle writer.

Gilbert: He is best known to me for single-handedly writing all of Peaky Blinders, which I love, but it is not a subtle show. It’s aggressively unsubtle, I would say. I think my mistake with this movie was expecting a kind of nuanced take on female interiority and mental illness and expression of self and the confines of the English aristocracy … from the guy who wrote Peaky Blinders, where there’s just … a lot of stabbing.

Sims: Knight wrote that movie Locked Down, the COVID heist movie starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor that came out on HBO this year that I thought stunk and had the problems you’re describing. It’s a lot of monologues about something that’s already been communicated.

Li: But do you understand that they feel trapped by the pandemic?

Sims: Yes, they’re “locked down.” I do … And I liked Spencer, but I don’t disagree. It’s a pretty blunt-force script. But it’s then being paired with Larraín, who is this very vibey filmmaker. He’s all about mood and hypnotizing the audience, as Shirley was describing. So it’s a funny fit in that way.

Li: I think the tension of the way this film was made is also what I liked about it. You’ve got a really literal screenwriter and then Pablo Larraín, who’s the kind of filmmaker who is like, What if Diana is not a character but a soul? And what if, instead of making this completely literal, the whole film is elastic? And when you watch it as an audience member again, you feel woozy and can’t fully grasp what’s happening? And that completely challenges whatever Steven Knight thought he was doing.

Sims: The film is set in 1991, which is  the agreed-upon moment the marriage between Charles and Diana ended. They officially announced their separation in 1992. This is Christmas 1991, after 10 years together. The end is nigh for them as partners. Diana shows up to Sandringham, one of the Queen’s many royal estates, and no one likes her anymore, apart from her kids.

She’s an enemy in her own family. And there’s this metaphor that Steven Knight has seized upon that Diana actually grew up in this stately home on the Sandringham estate called Park House. And so she’s got this longing for her childhood and the life she had before she was drawn into the Royal Family. In the movie, she’s constantly trying to get out of Sandringham and into this decrepit old house.

Gilbert: It’s interesting because I think Diana’s childhood was fairly miserable. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her father remarried. Her mother left the family. That was one of the tensions in the movie for me, this idea that she was longing for this great happy home that I think she never had.

Sims: You mentioned The Crown, which is written by Peter Morgan, which obviously has fanciful elements and imagines behind-the-scenes conversations. It’s not a perfect rendering of history, but it’s definitely going for more of a historical record, trying to place the Royal Family within Britain’s political history.

Spencer, as far as I could tell, does not have a lot of interest in any kind of historical record—not even, as Sophie’s intimating, interest in Diana, the true and real person. It’s much more interested in Diana, the pop-culture figure, much like how Larraín painted Jackie Onassis in Jackie. And that movie is very much about Jackie trying to craft her own narrative. It’s set around an interview she’s giving and it’s about her trying to cement the Camelot myth post–JFK’s assassination. This doesn’t have that plot structure, but so many people think of Diana and they think, Before she got married, she was this beautiful English rose, the pretty girl in the sundress. And so the innocence of her youth is bound up in this fantasy she has of her father, her old home, and wanting to get back to that somehow.

Li: She embodies all these different elements of femininity. People saw her as this virgin, and then people saw her as a ruined virgin. And this movie is about all of the metaphors wrapped up in Princess Diana, the figure. And at the same time, it reflects that onto the audience: You’re still watching because you’re obsessed with this interpretation of her. I just really love what Pablo Larraín does here. It doesn’t have the structure of Jackie. There’s not much historical context here. It’s not even a character study. It’s a soul study. Here’s someone who explicitly, from the first scene, is lost. Like physically, she’s lost; she can’t find Sandringham. But she’s also emotionally lost and mentally lost.

Sims: This movie depicts all the horrors of royalty and those pressures. But the way that people were rooting for her was also a sort of pressure. Diana was the people’s princess, right? She was the one whom people related to more. She was more of a real human being. But nonetheless, obviously, that’s not really going to liberate her that much more than a stern talking-to from the Queen, et cetera, et cetera.

There’s a psychological drama playing out where everyone wants her to eat because everything is about propriety, and she needs to show up to dinner at the right time, dressed in the right clothes, and eat her dinner. And the head chef, played by Sean Harris, tries in this kindly, if misguided, way to encourage her by making her favorite food. And it’s a great way to depict the inadvertent pressure even of kindliness. Like, he’s not helping. He doesn’t know it, but he’s not helping. It’s the different sort of pressure of being a symbol of relatability and loveliness that was also on Diana.

Gilbert: I have so many thoughts about the way bulimia is becoming part of the Princess Diana legend. And part of that has to do with how tropey portrayals of eating disorders are in popular culture. I know the temptation to make it part of her story. And I have to say, I think The Crown did this really well, emphasizing how trapped she was before her wedding and how the only recourse she had was eating and purging. But I also think, in culture, we have this tendency to fetishize anorexia as a way of demonstrating control. In literature and in the Bible, you have all these saints who don’t eat, and it’s always kind of worshipped. “Look how strong this woman is, how much control she has fasting.”

And with bulimia it’s the opposite. It’s always a symptom in pop culture of someone being too much. “They can’t control their appetite. They’re wild.” And I think this movie plays into that with Diana a little bit. There’s this idea that she doesn’t fit in the Royal Family: She doesn’t want to wear the clothes. She won’t do what she’s told. She wants to have her curtains open … and she’ll throw up food.

Sims: Diana is the first person I ever knew to be bulimic, and I would imagine that is true of almost everyone in my generation. She was one of the first people to publicly discuss it in a way that reached a massive audience. And it’s become kind of codified into the Diana myth.

Gilbert: And I think the film was actually very responsible in its portrayal of an eating disorder. It’s more that I have this general unease with reducing people to mental illness. I know it makes for good drama to do a movie like this where she’s fragmenting and seeing ghosts and evil butlers are playing tricks on her, leaving books in her room. It’s the tension of the family Christmas. She won’t wear the outfits she’s supposed to wear and go to dinner at the right time …

Sims: She’s resisting any control they’re trying to impose, right.

Gilbert: If we’re going to visit this story of her at this moment, I just want there to be a higher bar than picturing her at her lowest. I am fascinated by what the pressure of the paparazzi does to someone, and no one in that moment was more preyed on than her or more constantly exposed. I mean, there were hidden cameras in her gym to capture pictures of her working out. It was just constant, being in the limelight. And so if you’re going to revisit her, there has to be a higher bar than just imagining her breakdown.

Sims: This is the thing about someone who has passed into lore, even though she was alive during my lifetime. She’s become this symbol of so many things. And I do kind of admire—but also kind of can’t believe—that the approach to this movie is, “What if all of those things were just happening all at once?”

I will say, I was dreading going into this movie. I couldn’t take it if this was another self-serious biopic about how royalty was a gilded cage. Like, I’ve had enough. We know.

But this movie has scenes in which she interacts with the ghost of Anne Boleyn, who basically tells her, “Go tell ’em who’s boss.” The high horror camp was the only way I could really grapple with the film. I appreciate Diana eating the pearls out of her soup and talking to Anne Boleyn. It’s a Shining-esque horror journey. I appreciate Sophie’s point that maybe you go even more gothic and bold, which is what kept me from outright loving Spencer.

Gilbert: I don’t want a traditional biopic, and I loved all the ways in which this wasn’t traditional. I loved the pearls-and-soup scene, and the weird theatricality of it. But I also think if you’re doing a soul study like you’ve said, Shirley, it was not necessarily a fully accurate portrayal of this particular soul. It was a portrait of a moment in time—a fabricated moment in time, in fact—where, like David said, everything conflates to be going on at once. I want more of a sense of the emotional realism of who she was, not just as a person whom things happen to, and a person who suffered, but as a person who, in many cases, held her own.

Sims: We should talk about Kristen Stewart, the star of this film. She was a part of the Twilight films, which were this genuine phenomenon. But they were also the butt of jokes, this sort of pop-culture punching bag. And, in the last few years, Stewart’s become a celebrated art-house actress. She’s been in all these interesting small movies. I really love her performance in Clouds of Sils Maria. She’s gone back to Hollywood in things like Charlie’s Angels and Underwater that didn’t really pan out, but this [film] is kind of a big moment for her, where it’s on a wide scale, people are talking about her in this very legitimate way, and it’s such a challenging performance.

Li: I just think Spencer uses her so well for a couple of different reasons. She’s grappling with this mischievously meta casting. Stewart’s also contended with being in the public eye—not on the same level, but the fame and intrusion she experienced with Twilight movies is well-known.

And she has this walled-off quality that made her so polarizing when she was younger, where, like Diana, there’s something about her that we’ll never know. And Stewart’s talent is her interiority mixed with that innate mystery. And it’s used so well in this film.

Gilbert: She just absorbs my attention whenever she’s on the screen. She’s so striking, and she does have that interiority that suggests so much. This was such an unusual role. It felt bigger in many ways: She’s doing the accent; she has the mannerisms, the hair, the staring through eyelashes. And I’m so used to seeing her be understated. I think of it almost as like a female Keanu Reeves, and that if sounds like an insult, it’s not. I love them both. They have an understated screen presence, a quiet embodiment of something you’re curious about and you feel that you don’t quite know.

It’s interesting what you were just saying about the parallels between Kristen and Diana. I was thinking about that moment when Kristen Stewart was photographed by the paparazzi kissing her director on the set of Snow White and the Huntsman. Just the sense of how beleaguered you must feel when something like that happens and disrupts your whole life, and casts you as the villain, and seems to define the rest of your trajectory as an actor. And I think she’s done such a good job fighting back against that and controlling her own path in a way that it resonates with how I feel about Diana.

Sims: Yeah, I like her in the film. She’s so good at playing that kind of mannered emotion, which was so crucial to those Twilight movies. There is that arch quality that you need to play someone so ridiculously well-known. She’s probably going to get an Oscar nomination. It’s that classic thing: You play a real person and have a bit of a transformation. That confers legitimacy or whatever. And I liked her plenty, but it’s more the atmosphere of this film that I enjoyed, this dreamy, creepy vibe.

Gilbert: The production design was extraordinary and the direction I did really love. I loved the look of it. I loved the aesthetic. I loved all the outfits and how uncannily ’90s they were. Giant earrings. Tweed blazers …

Li: But there was still something missing for you.

Gilbert: It’s not even that there was something missing. I just don’t understand what it’s trying to do and why. And you’re almost bringing me around, Shirley, because you made such a good point about parallels. I just found the writing hacky. And having The Crown and Spencer, these two takes on Diana from men—plus the Netflix musical also from two men—I want a woman’s take on Diana. I want that perspective on emotional fragility and the pressure to look a certain way.