When you see the poster and other promotional materials for Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, it’s easy to assume that it’s another prestigious drama in the vein of other royal affairs. While that’s certainly not false, as this awards contender goes on, the Princess Diana would-be biopic becomes more complex and compelling, resulting in an unexpected horror movie about the late celebrity. Here are the ways in which Kristen Stewart’s new film proves itself to be more than it seems.
Spencer Is A Ghost Story Centered Around An Unstable Woman Who Isn’t A Ghost
Throughout the course of Pablo Larraín’s eerie, exquisite Spencer, you often feel as though you are watching a looming specter that’s walking amongst the living. Through Kristen Stewart’s inspired take, we’re witnessing an almost evocatively preternatural portrayal of the beloved princess, one practically floating through the lavish halls and empty hallways, flailing and wailing through the estate — yet nobody seems to notice her dire distress.
The core of Diana’s humanity is at the forefront of this fabulistic biopic, exploring what it is that made her so relatable and approachable. Yet, Spencer, with its unsettling atmosphere and dampened dreariness, plays like a ghost story for a woman who’s still with the living. There’s something about that very idea that makes the story even more horrifying than if she were solely an apparition. The fact that Princess Diana seems so in-tune with her humanity, yet feels as though she’s a mere few feet from her death, gives Spencer an otherworldly feeling that’s hard to shake, like a chill down your back.
Jonny Greenwood’s Lush Score Gives This Prestige Tale An Aching, Anxious Tone
Through his exceptional work with Radiohead and producing magnificent scores for There Will Be Blood, The Master, You Were Never Really Here, Inherent Vice, We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Phantom Thread, the latter for which he was Oscar-nominated, Jonny Greenwood only continues to establish himself as one of the most impressive musicians working today. Certainly, his invigorating and unsettling work for Spencer proves to be no exception.
As a curious blend of baroque classical compositions with some scattershot, free-wielding jazz-type tunes, Greenwood lulls us into the dreamy, disturbing mind of our troubled lead character, a wobbling, worn-out woman trying to balance the prim and proper royal expectations of being a princess with the restless mind of her ceaselessly disquieting thoughts. This outstandingly layered score helps Spencer find its aching, anxious tone, providing this prestigious drama with a prickly, puzzling timbre that’s reverberating from the ever-unsettling mind of our perturbed princess.
Kristen Stewart Plays Princess Diana As A Woman Trapped In Her Body And By Her Surroundings
Perhaps what’s most disarming about Kristen Stewart’s screen presence is how comfortably uncomfortable she can seem at any given moment. Whether she’s playing Bella Swan in The Twilight Saga, Joan Jett in The Runaways, the title character in Snow White and the Huntsman, or Jean Seberg in Seberg, to name a mere few of her screen credits, Stewart often excels at playing characters — real or fictionalized — who have an air of beauty, mystique, glamour, and/or grace, yet, there’s a lingering sense that they’re fighting to crawl out of their own skin. The mere idea of living inside a human body seems positively terrifying to them.
Certainly, that proves to be the case with Kristen Stewart’s dramatized portrayal of Princess Diana, a dignified royal who squirms and shutters at the thought of keeping up appearances, let alone accepting the public’s elegant image of her.
Through the actress’ bold, vividly tormented interpretation of Dynasty Di, Kristen Stewart excels at bringing gentle, disconcerting humility to this belated beauty. There’s hardly a second of Spencer where Princess Diana is presented as posh and posed — the way people often remember the people’s princess, especially through hazy remembrance. Though the fair lady walks around in lavish clothes, pampered hair, and expensive jewelry, there’s an aching sense of discontent in her every step. This is a woman who cannot accept herself as the princess she is meant to be. This is a woman battling against the very idea of acting like Princess Diana, and Stewart’s performance radiates at displaying this regal restlessness.
There’s The Frantic, Foreboding Tone To Spencer That Constantly Reminds You Of Death
Whether it’s the walls adorned with framed portraits of royal ancestors, the looming fog that dances across the Queen’s Sandringham estate during these chilly holiday nights, or the feature’s barrage of Anne Boleyn references, it’s safe to say that Spencer is preoccupied with the very nature of death. It’s this ghastly, ghoulish terror that hangs over this dour drama, providing this mournful movie with the unshakeable sense that one’s inevitable demise could, ultimately, be a mere moment away. Even as the warm feelings of Christmastime can fill this picture with a gentle, yearning feeling of good tidings and periodical cheer, there’s the unmistakable sense that one’s expiration date could come at any given time. Even the pleasantries of the holiday season can’t mask the terrifying reminder of Diana’s impending and ever-encroaching death.
This frantic, foreboding dread won’t ever let you forget what’s on the horizon. Even as Princess Diana fights against whatever forces that be, there’s always someone guiding her through the motions — making sure that that royal heir follows the appointed schedule of this getaway, accompanying her through the family’s itinerary. It gives Spencer such a queasy feeling, as though we’re almost morbidly watching her final steps, even as she tries to run away — literally and metaphorically — from what’s set to befall her. It’s almost never ending unease. We can’t help but share Diana’s fright as she fidgets against the binds of her fate.
It’s A Story About A Frazzled Woman Unknowingly Fighting Against Her Suffocating Demise
Intriguingly, Spencer acts like a mirror opposite to Pablo Larraín’s previous film, Jackie. Where that 2016 feature explored the grieving mindset of a widowed woman, one who must put on a brave face for a mourning nation that has lost its commander in chief, all while she wrestles with her own burning feelings of pitless sorrow, this latest film depicts a princess who is struck by the vague realization that she’s on the verge of death, and there’s precious little she can do to stop her demise. If Jackie is a drama about a woman coming to terms with her presidential husband’s assassination, Spencer is a horror fable about a woman clinging to what remains of her unorthodox life, all while the grim reaper creaks around the corner, leers at every misstep, anticipating her untimely departure.
As a result, Spencer becomes a movie where a woman can feel the ancient walls of this storied house caving in on her, practically suffocating her — almost as if they’re trying to squeeze the life out of her at any opportune moment. Naturally, we watch as Princess Diana slowly yet surely unwinds, her thoughts racing, leaving her in a frazzled, frenzied state. Diana can’t escape her approaching fate.
Spencer Plays With Mood To Put Us Into The Rapid Mind Of Our Dignified Lead Under Constant Stress
There were so many expectations placed upon the tragically short life of Princess Diana. After all, the lady was famously deemed The People’s Princess, painted as a civil and charismatic woman who somehow carried an air of common decency and enlivening normalcy — even amid the privileged pageantry of such sophisticated social stature. She had an image to fill in the people’s minds. There was hardly a moment when she was allowed to be anyone other than Princess Diana, the fair, fanciful woman who graced the nation with a seemingly pristine personality.
While Spencer paints itself as a fable, to avoid presuming what went on inside the head of this late figure, there’s a remarkable and refreshingly real vulnerability to this on-screen portrayal. Elegantly and evocatively, Pablo Larraín plays with tone and mood in this lyrical character drama — often filling the frame with irregular images to counterbalance the regalness of this royal household, thus getting us into the jagged headspace of this psychologically tormented woman. It calls The Shining to mind more than a drama like The Crown, in that respect.
This constant state of stress and enduring distress presents an operatic odyssey into the unstable worldview of our weary woman. Even during Princess Diana’s most intimate moments, there’s this rickety, rattling notion that anyone would be listening, anyone could be watching — even to a supernatural degree. How can anyone find comfort when your private thoughts echo into the public ear? How can anyone find solace when your life is constantly monitored? In Spencer, Princess Diana must contend with the discovery that her life doesn’t even belong to her, that her life might be taken from her, just as quickly, for that reason. It’s a nightmarish existence, and one that turns Spencer into an existential horror film.
Spencer is playing in theaters. You can also rent the movie digitally.
Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he’s a professional Garfield enthusiast.