TORONTO — Director Pablo Larraín took a big gamble when he cast Kristen Stewart in a role as weighty and revered as Princess Diana.
The Chilean’s game of royal roulette has paid off.
Because Stewart, who we’ve always known is scores better than the average-to-wretched scripts she’s so frequently handed — “Twilight,” “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Charlie’s Angels” — is haunting, playful and blisteringly human as Di at the end of her rope.
Her princess is a broken woman so alive with promise and love and humor, but held back by mummified royals who only scold and sneer, and an unfeeling, slimeball husband. All she has in the world are her two boys, who worship their mum. The tragedy is that every millisecond of the movie, we’re fully aware of the fate that will befall this young mother.
Stewart is the star of “Spencer,” a dream-like movie that had its North American premiere Wednesday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. The evening was easily the most electric of the entire week, and brought the audience back to the good old days — most seats were full, there was rousing applause at the end and film buffs loudly analyzed every moment on the way out. As it should be.
The unconventional drama, which takes place over an imagined Christmas at Sandringham shortly before her and Charles’ divorce, is one of several films and TV shows resurrecting Diana lately, including “The Crown” and “Diana the Musical,” which is coming to Broadway and Netflix in November.
“Spencer,” by a long shot, is the most fictional of them all. Through its fibs, however, the movie manages to be the most honest and probing take, and gets to the meat of what was tormenting the People’s Princess better than any simple historical retelling ever could.
Larraín’s 2016 film “Jackie,” which starred Natalie Portman as a mourning Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of husband John F. Kennedy’s assassination, took a similar tack. The director likes to use enormously famous women to explore grief and survival in the spotlight. His movies, while sly and clever, are almost like operas in their emotional heft. In his vision, Diana obsesses over “off with her head!” Anne Boleyn — seeing herself in Henry VIII’s wronged wife. I kept thinking about Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.”
The director has other theatrical tendencies. In one fantasy sequence — one of many — Diana rips off her pearl necklace at dinner, the pearls fall into her bowl of soup and she eats them. The jewelry crunches against her molars. It’s freakin’ weird, yes, but you get it.
What you’ll also get from Larraín’s moody film is a glimpse at how Diana was feeling shortly before her marriage fell apart for all the world to see. You will not be treated to a historical rundown of actual recorded events. And, unlike Peter Morgan’s “The Crown” and “The Queen,” you will not get a sympathetic, “isn’t she wonderful!” Queen Elizabeth II. We view the world from Diana’s perspective, so goodness emanates only from her children, William and Harry, and the servants she’s closest to (Sally Murphy beautifully plays one named Maggie.)
In one scene, late for yet another palace meal, Diana turns to her adoring kids and says, “Will they kill me, you think?” Steven Knight’s script ain’t trying to be nice.
Stewart won’t win the Best British Accent trophy at the Kids’ Choice Awards, and the film is not what we’ve come to expect from palace intrigue dramas, or any historical Oscar bait, really.
But of all the Diana projects out there, this is the one the late Diana Spencer would want you to see.