Pablo Larraín’s Spencer
Opposing Parallels in the Lives of Kristen Stewart and Princess Diana
At about the midway point of Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021), Diana (Kristen Stewart) walks into the library to confront Charles (Jack Farthing) for the first time in a film that is otherwise full of confounding empty hallways and disciplined long shots of the princess alone. The two argue over their son’s inclusion in the pheasant shooting, the pearls Charles bought his mistress, and Diana’s refusal to close the curtains while she changes. “You have to be able to make your body do things you hate,” Charles hisses from across the pool table. Gunshots go off on the grounds outside, and Diana flinches as though a stray bullet might hit her. “For the good of the country,” Charles continues. “For the people. Because they don’t want us to be people.” His words are a message not only to the princess but to a young Stewart as well.
A close look at the two women’s lives reveals similar dramatic encounters with the press negotiated on strikingly different terms. Neither identified with the public roles thrust upon them, and each struggled for control in opposing spheres of their lives: While Diana Frances Spencer was an expert at manipulating the media, she remained powerless to win over her husband. Kristen Stewart, meanwhile, couldn’t have predicted the narrative that would pop up around Twilight (2008) overnight, but she used the franchise’s success to focus her career on indie films. A single contract unmoored both of their lives. Stewart probably sees the parallels herself, once telling Harper’s Bazaar, “I do gravitate towards characters I don't have to step too far out of myself to play.” In Spencer’s same library scene, Diana confesses to Charles that “everything looks different now.” It’s not hard to imagine Stewart looking out the limousine window at the first Twilight premiere, turning to Robert Pattinson, and saying the same thing.
Stewart was born in Los Angeles, with her mother a script supervisor and director and her father a TV producer. She started acting at the age of eight, but when she signed on to Twilight at seventeen, the movie was posited in proximity to the realm of indie filmmaking with director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen  and Lords of Dogtown )at the helm. Before Twilight, the highest-grossing movie for a teen girl audience had been The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005), making forty-two million dollars at the worldwide box office. The crew didn’t expect Twilight to do much better. Then the movie grossed over 400 million dollars worldwide. It showed Hollywood that girls would pay to see films. And along came The Hunger Games (2012) and Divergent (2014). But Stewart was left to navigate the unexpected media attention with no predecessor to turn to for guidance.
Diana’s insider origins mirror Stewart’s. She grew up as an aristocrat and spent the first few years of her life in Park House—which is located on one of the royal family’s estates. The families had been closely allied for several generations: Diana’s grandmothers had even served as ladies-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth. When Charles proposed to Diana, he was thirty-two, and she was nineteen. Their marriage was billed as “the wedding of the century,” and 750 million people saw it live (and years later, 2.5 billion people would tune in to Diana’s funeral—an event that remains one of the most-watched televised moments in history).
Neither of the women were industry outsiders. Yet, like Stewart, Diana was unaware of what she had signed on to do. As the secular head of the Church, the king is required to marry a virgin (an emphasis that mirrors the sanctity of Bella’s virginity in Twilight). Yet Charles was in love with his best friend: the married Camilla Parker Bowles, who was rumored to have been vetting virgins fit to marry her lover and put Diana at the top of the list. During the engagement, Diana reportedly discovered a gold bracelet Charles had custom-made for Camilla. After the royal wedding, Charles wore cuff links of intertwined Cs and, when confronted by Diana, called the gift “a gesture of friendship” from Camilla. Around the birth of their first son, Diana overheard Charles on the phone with Camilla, saying he would always love her. In Spencer, Diana reads a biography of Anne Boleyn—the wife Henry VIII had executed so he could be free to remarry—and says she will not be like “the woman who offered her head to the tweezers with such grace.”
A quiet misogyny has defined much of Stewart’s stardom, shed in large part thanks to her role in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), when she became the first American to win a César Award. As the screenwriter for Twilight pointed out, the movies, their fans, and Stewart received unprecedented levels of vitriol because they were feminine, and therefore seen as worthy of contempt. Millions of people—men and women—had a visceral aversion to a franchise targeted at women and girls, while simultaneously giving a pass to Transformers (2007) the previous year for being “just goofy fun” (and even in that male gaze franchise, it was Megan Fox’s career that took a hit: after getting fired from the third movie, the actress didn’t make a significant return to the public eye until just last year).
Much of the media’s vitriol for Stewart came after she famously cheated on Pattinson in 2012. They covered the story for over a month, and fans took to Twitter to call Stewart a whore, a slut, and a “trampire.” She was so unpopular, she won a Razzie for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 (2012). And almost no one mentioned the fact that she cheated on Pattinson with an older, married man who was in a position of power as her director of Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). Instead, the conversation was about the violation of heartthrob Pattinson. Even Donald Trump made a statement on Twitter (“Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again—just watch. He can do much better!”). Jodie Foster came out in support of Stewart, stating, “If I had to grow up in this media culture, I don’t think I could survive it emotionally.” Stewart, reflecting on her Twilight stardom years later, admitted, “Having that much human energy thrust at you and then being critically analyzed is obviously disarming.” As Diana points out in Spencer, the press’s lenses are like microscopes.
Though millions took to the streets to celebrate Charles and Diana’s wedding, the crowd had no idea the marriage was over before it began. They wouldn’t know until Diana suffered for more than a decade in private. But the princess would use the media to make powerful allusions to her true situation: On official visits to the Taj Mahal and the pyramids, Diana posed alone for the cameras to emphasize Charles’s absence (Diana would later discover that Charles had been secretly vacationing with Camilla in Turkey while she was alone in Egypt). When her father died, Diana let photographers catch her carrying her own suitcase to the wake. In Spencer, Diana wonders aloud if the royal family will kill her for all her transgressions—a clear allusion to the conspiracies surrounding her death. In time, the princess became more devoted to her public service as a way of healing. “I found myself being more and more involved with people who were rejected by society,” Diana told the BBC. “I found an affinity there. I respected very much the honesty I found on that level with people I met.”
By the time the couple separated, the princess had become a cruelly wronged martyr in the eyes of the British people. Her public work had brought her huge popularity: From AIDS patients to sick children, she was a genuinely devoted public servant, someone who listened to their stories and sat on their sickbeds. Even feminists and activists, who once wrote her off as a spoiled aristocrat, embraced her for daring to fight the establishment. The royal family worried a future queen more admired than the future king would come to undermine Charles. An anonymous friend of the family even said, “Diana has an intuitive grasp of other people’s problems, and how to respond to them—more so than any other royal. She will make a much better Queen than the Queen.”
In 2012, Stewart was such a bankable actress that every dollar spent on a film she starred in delivered forty dollars in revenue. This gave her the freedom to green-light indie films and take on work she had a genuine artistic interest in. Without her involvement, we might not have Still Alice (2012), Clouds of Sils Maria, Camp X-Ray (2014), Certain Women (2016), Lizzie (2018), or Seberg (2019)—all films her name helped get off the ground. These roles helped Stewart direct her energy towards stories that matter, particularly by taking on a number of queer roles to advocate for greater representation in Hollywood. By the time Spencer was in pre-production, Stewart had solidified her reputation as a queer advocate and mythic feminist icon for the aging Twilight audience. She was the perfect actress to tap to bring “the people’s princess” back to the screen.
Stewart has received her first Oscar nomination for her role in Spencer. A fitting nod, considering the uncanny parallels between the women’s lives. Diana once said after her separation from Charles that she would fight to the end because she had a role to fulfill and two children to bring up. The end of Spencer signals the freedom Diana found in walking away from the monarchy: She looks out on the river, embracing what is best for her future. Her marriage to Charles left her untethered, and it took her more than ten years to reel herself back in, but when she did, she became one of the royal family’s most formidable opponents. Spencer ends with Stewart’s smiling face, and again we recognize the hope in the eyes of two women who have endured so much and emerged triumphant.