Kristen Stewart stars in a hallucinatory horror film about the dehumanizing effects of tradition.
For many of us, the upcoming holiday season is tinged with a sense of dread. As much as the holidays are a time of joy and togetherness, they can also bring with them the crushing burden of tradition and ritual. Who hasn’t borne witness to a familial meltdown because a particular dish wasn’t served a certain way or presents weren’t opened on exactly the right schedule? The crushing need to conform to the expectations of family and their requisite traditions can turn an otherwise joyful time into a nightmare.
Now imagine you’re a member of the royal family, where the rigid constraints of tradition and ritual are not only compounded by your status but exist year-round. Royal families are, after all, a symbol, and symbols can never change lest their meaning be distorted. When your face is on the currency, currency is what you become.
This is one of the many metaphorical allusions director Pablo Larraín weaves throughout the claustrophobic, hallucinatory Spencer as it follows Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) in her attempt to literally survive three days with the royal family over Christmas 1991. Much like Shiva Baby, Emma Seligman’s dark feminist comedy from earlier this year, Larraín frames Spencer as a low-key horror film. Set ten years into Diana’s fraught and ultimately doomed marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), it depicts Diana as a woman rapidly losing her sanity in a family for whom “the future doesn’t exist, and the past and the present are the same.”
Those going into the film without pre-existing knowledge of Diana Spencer’s history with the royal family will likely feel disoriented being dropped into year ten of her tumultuous marriage to Charles. Not so much a biopic as an apocryphal snapshot, the film assumes familiarity with the circumstances leading up to the princess’ mental state at the time the story takes place: her marriage at age 20 to the 32-year-old prince, Charles’ long-term affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, and Diana’s increasingly strained relationship with the royal family. For someone like me, whose royal knowledge begins and ends with Netflix’s The Crown, I suspect there are currents running through the film that only real Diana fanatics will truly appreciate but are not strictly necessary to understand the broad strokes of Larraín’s thesis.
Larraín weaponizes the glamorous trappings of aristocracy to hammer home his depiction of royalty as a gilded cage. Through his lens everything, even the princess’ legendary wardrobe, is a form of oppression. A string of pearls given to her by Charles might as well be a noose around her neck; the white purity of an exquisite gown is threatened by a drop of blood from an act of self-harm; and the lusciously-plated haute cuisine prepared by the sympathetic head chef (Sean Harris) is met with choked revulsion to someone struggling with bulimia.
Aside from a few kindly members of the house staff, Diana’s only true ally in all of this is her dresser Maggie (the always-perfect Sally Hawkins) whose warm comraderie Diana clings to like a life preserver. Maggie’s enabling of Diana’s defiance, however, is viewed with suspicion by the stony-faced Major Gregory (a gaunt Timothy Spall, almost unrecognizable from his Harry Potter days) who has been tasked by the family to ensure Diana’s conformity. The Major lurks at the edges of Diana’s periphery like a vulture, ever watching, logging, and reporting on her behavior.
Spencer is by no means a subtle film. Larraín embeds metaphor into every frame, whether it’s the aforementioned reference to currency or Diana’s dilapidated childhood home just next door to the royal residence of Sandringham, rotted and crumbling like her own mental state. Then there are the pheasants on the estate’s grounds, bred for no other reason than to be killed for sport by members of the royal family who aim their shotguns with the same precision as the paparazzi aim their lenses.
Adding to the overall effect of claustrophobic dread is Phantom Thread composer Jonny Greenwood’s woozy, jazz-inflected score, whose sparse strings and solo piano lull you into comfort before rising with terrifying intensity to crash against your psyche. It’s all laid on as thick as clotted cream on a raspberry tart, but since when have horror movies ever been subtle? Larraín is going for no less than total condemnation of a rotted institution that grinds the young and free-willed into dust. After all, it’s happened before, or so Diana convinces herself as she reads a biography of Anne Boleyn, the wife Henry VIII had executed so he could marry his mistress and who appears in Diana’s hallucinations to deliver warnings of a similar fate.
All of this oppressive symbolism would threaten to overwhelm the actor at its center if not for Kristen Stewart’s quietly devastating performance as Diana. Reminiscent of Natalie Portman’s work in the equally harrowing Black Swan, Stewart embodies Diana’s choked speaking style and hunched posture, as if she could fold herself into a package so small she would simply disappear. And yet in Stewart’s hands Diana is no meek victim. After all, her struggles are the result of her defiance, her refusal to allow her true self — the playful woman who loves dancing and fast food — to be stripped away. Stewart deftly carries every scene in a film that asks a great deal from its star.
Spencer is the latest entry in the modern trend of feminist re-evaluation of late-20th century pop cultural figures. Though in this case the film is less about elevating Diana herself, who, as the so-called “people’s princess,” has always been viewed with near-sainthood by the public. Instead it seeks to condemn the people and institutions who attempted to smother her light, and it’s not hard to connect the dots to the present-day conflict with her son Harry and Meghan Markle. For all its pageantry and glamour, in Larraín’s hands royalty is a thing to be escaped.