Kristen Stewart's portrayal of the ever-popular British "People's Princess" Diana has been heralded by many as being a revelation from the moment Pablo Lorraín's slice of speculative bio-fiction finished unspooling at its Venice Film Festival premiere in September--which to me points up to how sadly few people, and especially so-self-professed film fans, have seen Stewart's often stellar work in the indie film space in recent years, most notably in her two collaborations with director Olivier Assayas: Personal Shopper and The Clouds of Sils Maria. For the latter film, she won France's Oscar equivalent, the César, for Best Supporting Actress, much to the uninformed skepticism and sarcastic virtual and literal sideeyes by mainstream audiences and entertainment media. No one will ever consider any sort of awards buzz involving Stewart as being a joke after her performance here, not only effectively simulating the voice but more impressively inhabiting the spirit of the late, erstwhile Lady Spencer in all her ironically magnetic contradictions: the aura of appropriately regal class but palpably human frailty and vulnerability; the air of cool detachment that is somehow all the more inviting. While her work here is not at the level at her truly revelatory turns in the Assayas films, it again displays how she's able to get under the skin of her characters and embody them in the most literal, pure sense, with the most peripheral of nonverbal gestures being used to convey nuance just as much as the slight inflection of a line reading.
Stewart's presence and emotional authenticity lends gravitas to this otherwise fairly slight look at the Princess of Wales as she spends a Christmas holiday stretch in the early '90s at a retreat with the rest of the royal family. What feels as rigid and alien to us commoners in the audience--for a start, a strictly programmed wardrobe for literally every moment of every day; a literal weigh-in upon arrival through the massive estate's doors--is for Diana routine and, at this point in her crumbling marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and life in general, downright suffocating. (Perhaps a better term is "choking," for in one fantasy interlude, Diana literally does so after swallowing her necklace pearls in her dinner soup. Don't ask.) As it ambles along with Diana's everyday activity as she chafes against the confining rules of tradition, with her only moments of free and honest joy being those she shares with young princes William and Harry, there is little in the way of dramatic momentum in Steven Knight's script. Although there are occasional flights of fancy, such as the aforementioned pearl scene and a visit to a childhood home that ends up veering into Gothic horror tropes, the casually observational style and, thus, lack of underlying urgency makes the film pale in comparison to Larraín's other recent cinematic deconstruction of a seemingly larger-than-life female in history, Jackie. But even if there is not a whole lot actually happening around its title character in the three days the film traces, that said heroine is consistently compelling proves to be enough. While one knows going in that Diana neither tragically imploded nor explosively combusted in a rage against the royal machine in public fashion during the film's particular period of time, Stewart's delicate tightrope walk of a performance convinces one that it actually could and may still happen from moment to moment, even if well documented and widely observed history has proven otherwise.