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Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana? A nervy gamble pays off in 'Spencer'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The late Princess Diana continues to fascinate actors and filmmakers, as we've seen from the Netflix series "The Crown" and a new film capture of the stage show "Diana: The Musical." Now Kristen Stewart steps into the role in the new movie "Spencer." It takes place over the Christmas holidays in 1991, near the end of Diana's marriage to Prince Charles. "Spencer" opens this week in theaters. And our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: When I first heard that Kristen Stewart had been cast in the movie "Spencer," I had a somewhat skeptical reaction. Apart from the fact that we'd seen plenty of Princess Diana biopics already, with still more to come, the role seemed a strange fit for an actor of Stewart's subtle magnetism. And while she's played celebrities before - she made a pretty good Joan Jett in the 2010 movie "The Runaways" - putting on a blonde wig and a British accent felt like a stunt too far. A year later, I stand happily corrected. Even with the Dianassance (ph) in full swing and the royal family continuing to make headlines, Stewart's performance is remarkable enough to cut through the noise. Some of her showier mannerisms - her breathy vocal delivery, her nervously darting gaze - takes some getting used to. But the transformation quickly takes hold. It's a nervy gamble that pays off.

The same could be said of "Spencer," which plays more like a claustrophobic thriller or a dark comedy of manners than a run-of-the-mill biopic. The Chilean director, Pablo Larrain, has fashioned a mesmerizing companion piece to his earlier "Jackie," in which Natalie Portman played Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband's assassination. Like "Jackie," "Spencer" is an intensely subjective drama compressed into a tight time frame. Steven Knight's script unfolds over three days in December 1991, during an especially miserable stretch of Diana's famously unhappy marriage. Per tradition, the royal family has gathered at Sandringham House in Norfolk for the Christmas holidays. But Diana couldn't be in a less festive mood. In one of her many breaches of protocol, she ditches her security detail in London and drives down to Sandringham herself, arriving hours behind schedule. She spends the next three days avoiding her husband and in-laws and refusing to wear the dresses that have been scheduled for her every waking moment. Those dresses are the work of the brilliant costume designer Jacqueline Durran. And like the production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas, they're both beautiful and stifling. "Spencer" wants us to identify with Diana's captivity while also luxuriating in every gorgeous detail of it. Some of the details, of course, aren't so pretty.

Like "The Crown," though a bit more discreetly, the movie depicts Diana's eating disorder, brought on by her profound misery. The camera stalks her around her chambers, where she seethes and despairs, accompanied by the unnerving strains of Jonny Greenwood's score. At times, Sandringham comes to resemble the Overlook Hotel from "The Shining," its long sinuous hallways crawling with ghosts. Diana has frequent visions of Anne Boleyn, famously beheaded by her faithless husband, King Henry VIII. It's not the subtlest of parallels, but it works. While the queen and Prince Charles are practically reduced to cameos, Diana does spend some meaningful time with her young sons, William and Harry, played by Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry. They clearly adore her, and it's lovely to see notes of affection and playfulness creep into Stewart's performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPENCER")

JACK NIELEN: (As William) Mommy, why do we have to open our presents on Christmas Eve? Why not Christmas Day like everybody else?

KRISTEN STEWART: (As Diana) You know, at school, you do tenses?

NIELEN: (As William) Yeah.

STEWART: (As Diana) It's the past, present, future.

NIELEN: (As William) Right.

STEWART: (As Diana) Well, here, there is only one tense. There is no future. Past and the present are the same thing.

NIELEN: (As William) Daddy told Harry it's because Father Christmas does queens and kings the day before everybody else so that we get the best presents.

FREDDIE SPRY: (As Harry) It's true.

NIELEN: (As William) He still believes it, though.

SPRY: (As Harry) What?

STEWART: (As Diana) Actually, that was my little fabrication.

SPRY: (As Harry) I believe mommy.

NIELEN: (As William) Daddy did confirm it, though.

STEWART: (As Diana) Oh, if daddy confirmed it, then it must be true.

NIELEN: (As William) Yes, of course it is.

CHANG: Diana has a few friends among the palace staff. The always wonderful Sally Hawkins plays her dresser, Maggie, who urges her to stay strong and power through. Timothy Spall is a combative but not unsympathetic presence as Major Gregory, the officer in charge of keeping the holidays and Diana herself on schedule. "Spencer" shows us how royal festivities are run like a military operation, where cooks, maids and cleaners must work under unbearable scrutiny. You begin to understand why Diana, who's also being closely watched, pushes back at every opportunity. Her most daring act of rebellion is to try and escape Sandringham and sneak into a boarded-up house nearby, which happens to be her old childhood home, a reminder of happier, more innocent times.

Princess Diana has long been defended by many as the victim of a loveless institution and dismissed by others as a manipulative schemer. Stewart's sympathetic performance refuses to rule out either possibility. What makes her acting so resonant is that Stewart herself is the very picture of conflicted Hollywood royalty, a megastar who knows what it's like to have the details of her personal life chewed up and spat out by the tabloids. Stewart doesn't go easy on Diana or soft pedal her moments of spite and self-pity. But there's an underlying compassion here that never wavers.

What I especially like about "Spencer" is the way it uses the language of psychological horror to heighten its heroine's conflicted emotions. Not a lot happens in terms of plot, but by the end, a decisive shift has taken place. The movie builds to a piercing, satisfying moment of clarity for Diana, followed by the briefest of nods to all the dramas and tragedies still to come.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "Spencer," starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana. On Monday's show, actress Andie MacDowell, she stars with her daughter, Margaret Qualley, as a mother and daughter in the new Netflix series "Maid." MacDowell became known in the '90s for such films as "Sex, Lies, And Videotape," "Groundhog Day" and "Four Weddings And A Funeral." I hope you can join us.

Virtuoso jazz guitarist Pat Martino, the innovative musician admired by the likes of guitarist Les Paul, died Monday at the age of 77 in his hometown of Philadelphia. Early in his career, surgery for an aneurysm left him with no memory, and he had to relearn the ability to play guitar. He went on to record and play for three more decades. Let's listen to a bit of his music. Here's "Just Friends" from his album "El Hombre." It was recorded in 1967, when Martino was making his debut as a leader at the age of 22. Trudy Pitts is on Hammond organ.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAT MARTINO'S "JUST FRIENDS")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.