A tender rebellion: How Kristen Stewart humanizes Princess Diana’s legacy in ‘Spencer’

A blonde woman dressed in red looks off to the distance.
Kristen Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana calls for an Academy Award for Best Actress, argues Eliza Powers PO ’25. (Courtesy: Pablo Larrain)

CW: Mentions of eating disorders. 

After escaping Queen Elizabeth II’s ornate and chilly country house, Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) takes William and Harry to KFC.

Diana has endured plenty during the torturous festivities of Christmas of 1991: Her curtains are sewn shut, every outfit is meticulously picked out and her weight is calculated. “Spencer,” Pablo Larrain’s taut, razor-sharp biopic, is a film about a woman suffocating under both public and private scrutiny. Diana is a butterfly pinned under a magnifying glass, a miniature ballerina spinning in a jewelry box.

But as she drives away, radio up, hair flying in the breeze, convertible top down, Stewart’s Diana can finally exhale. The KFC drive-thru employee asks for the name for the order.

“Spencer,” Diana answers, a reclamation of her maiden name and identity.

Stewart’s Diana is an act of rebellion, a reclamation of power. She memorializes Diana with her own challenging youth: The crushing pressure of two girls thrust into the spotlight. Stewart advocates for humanity in the face of oppression. Her Diana is a revolution — one deserving of an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Stewart, who starred as Bella Swan in the “Twilight” series, is no stranger to public scrutiny. Like Diana, she was catapulted seemingly overnight into a public persona with impossible standards: both a sex symbol and a chastity standard, America’s sweetheart and a projection of every 2005-2012 tween’s desires. Stewart’s body has been picked apart, her sexuality scrutinized, her career trivialized, her relationships dismantled, her talent challenged. 

Stewart’s “Twilight” notoriety haunts her even a decade later, as her more serious films are overlooked and discredited by her teen stardom. It’s no coincidence that her spellbinding performance in “Clouds of Sils Maria” — for which she was lauded as the first American actress to win the French Cesar award — was overlooked by major American film academies. At least in the U.S., Stewart has a contentious reputation. The American public consistently and unflinchingly puts Kristen Stewart in a game that she did not consent to play, reinforced by rules and obstacles she cannot overcome. Princess Diana, even after her death, falls victim to this same public entitlement.

But isn’t acting in a major film franchise or marrying into a royal family consent for media attention? Not without the informed consent concealed from youth. Neither Stewart or Spencer grew up in the strict roles they were forced to inhabit. Stewart was 17 when filming Twilight; Diana was 19 when Prince Charles proposed. Neither knew what they were signing up for.

And so Stewart understands Diana’s carnal hunger. When confronted with platters and trays of pastries, mince pies and trifle awaiting the royal Christmas Day feast, Diana — who has refused to eat throughout the visit — begins to feast alone. Embodying Diana’s private, freed physicality, Stewart eats with her hands and licks her fingers, with shoulders relaxed and legs bouncing.

“An Academy Award celebrates a performance, but Stewart’s Diana is a transformation. ” —Eliza Powers PO ’25

Stewart picks at cream scones with currants; she takes a bite out of beef wellington and returns it to the wrong tray. She barely chews several bites of chocolate cake adorned with cherries, then sweeps her finger over the Christmas pudding. Yet there’s an intentionality in Diana’s resistance that Stewart embodies. Even in moments of defiance, Diana maintains her integrity, delicately placing the devoured bones and wrappers back on the shelf.

An Academy Award celebrates a performance, but Stewart’s Diana is a transformation. She developed lockjaw perfecting Diana’s sharp lilt, and her cadence highlights the People’s Princess’ sharp wit. “Spencer” isn’t overly interested with Diana’s past or the future that looms ahead (her tragic death took place six years after “Spencer” is set), but Stewart is. Her meticulous research of the princess’ history anchors Stewart’s Diana with the unique burden she must carry.

Stewart says this all with her eyes. After every purge, Diana’s eyes glaze over with suffering in the bathroom mirror. Every long walk in the chilly halls is paired with the frantic scanning of a woman desperately searching for a stripped identity.

For all of Diana’s self-destructive coping mechanisms, Stewart maintains a compelling portrait of her humanity. Despite degradation, Diana’s compassion prevails, whether she is conspiratorially glancing between her sons William and Harry as they play by flickering candlelight, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel as she sings along to the radio or tenderly grabbing the fingers of her one ally and dressmaker, played by Sally Hawkins. 

“Spencer” is an uprising, and Stewart’s performance is a battle-cry. Kristen Stewart doesn’t just deserve an Oscar, she demands it. 

Eliza Powers PO ’25 is from New Orleans, Louisiana. She loves reality TV, Phoebe Bridgers and searching for the perfect avocado toast recipe. 

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