When Royal Life Is a Horror Film

Spencer puts a fresh spotlight on Princess Diana—but not for her historical or political significance.

Kristen Stewart, playing Princess Diana in 'Spencer,' looks warily out of the frame.
Pablo Larrain / Neon / Everett

Spencer opens with a scene of military-like precision. Jeeps barrel down a country road to the royal residence Sandringham House to unload a haul of massive metal boxes; cooks march single file into the estate’s kitchen and crack the crates open to reveal fresh fruit, chilled lobster, and other culinary riches. The head chef (played by Sean Harris) rings a bell and barks at his staff: “Brigade! Once more unto the breach!” The entire operation moves like clockwork, even though its only purpose is to cook dinner for the British royal family. It’s a bit of patriotic pageantry for an institution that has little other reason to exist at this point.

Into all this rigor and procedure wanders Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart), a whirlwind of unpredictability in a world utterly ill-equipped for it. Pablo Larraín’s film imagines one particularly fraught Christmas holiday in 1991 when Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles was unsteady and the royal family’s patience for the media frenzy around the princess was beginning to wear thin. Much like Larraín’s other historical explorations, such as the mournful Jackie and the wonderful Chilean film No, his latest movie is about the inescapable force of public image—but this one focuses on the way image shapes a subject’s private life.

Ironically, Spencer itself seems shaped by popular readings of Diana’s life, which it renders as a dark fairy tale of a tragic princess caught in the gilded cage of monarchy. The film is not some po-faced lecture about the trappings of wealth and fame, which would feel especially exhausting, given how much media have been devoted to Diana’s life (and untimely death) over the years. Its bigger influences are pieces of atmospheric horror such as The Shining, though Spencer is also a surprisingly arch and funny work, trying to encapsulate its protagonist’s shifting moods—sometimes manic, other times bitingly witty—over a few stifling days. It is not that concerned with the historical record, and it does not zoom out to consider Diana’s political significance. Spencer is a contained, largely fictional movie. Despite being set among Queen Elizabeth II and her family, it cares less about them as people than as pressure points for a woman on the verge of total psychological collapse. It is a mood piece, and the mood is grim.

That means practically the entire film is on Stewart’s shoulders. She plays Diana as someone who half the time seems aware of her particular power as a royal who’s less wedded to tradition, and half the time feels genuinely unbalanced, struggling with her collapsing marriage and shaky status in the family. Stewart is an incredibly talented but specific presence, best suited to playing the languid, internally focused characters that earned her acclaim in Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. So she renders Diana’s turmoil with believability, as she snaps at Sandringham’s servants privately and has strange fantasies of eating her own pearls, as well as of seeing Anne Boleyn’s ghost stalking the halls.

Even more impressive is the way Stewart inhabits Diana’s public persona, which was what helped the princess earn huge sympathy from the British public. Early in the film, Diana gets lost while driving to Sandringham and wanders into a local café to ask for directions. There, Stewart accentuates Diana’s charm and vulnerability, dialing up the physical twitchiness and breathy pauses in her voice to let the viewing audience know that her character is giving a performance. The script, by Steven Knight, emphasizes how Diana is most comfortable with her sons (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry) and is almost terminally frightened by her husband, Charles (Jack Farthing), or the Queen (Stella Gonet). She can be carefree behind closed doors but devolves into horror-film paranoia once she’s required to dress up and appear for any kind of royal function.

Larraín is especially intrigued by the staff at Sandringham, who maintain an illusion of grace and efficiency—the invisible presence that keeps every fancy dinner on rails. Diana, who struggles with punctuality and keeps messing with royal protocol (on formal occasions, even the order in which family members enter a room is strictly established beforehand), should be the staff’s worst enemy. But Larraín and Knight mostly have them try to quietly intervene and help Diana out of her psychological morass. The princess’s conversations with the head chef and a dresser named Maggie (Sally Hawkins) are all extremely compelling, conveying the empathy Diana could both project and engender. On the other end of the sensitivity spectrum is the glowering, ex-military attendant (Timothy Spall) who subtly tries to intimidate the princess into behaving.

Spall’s character, much like the ghostly Boleyn, speaks to the more menacing readings of the royals, which Larraín clearly sees as an essential part of the Diana mythology. Coupled with Stewart’s exposed nerve of a performance, the suffocating intensity of Larraín’s filmmaking, and Jonny Greenwood’s droning score, the movie brings a fresh sense of tragedy and loss to a tale that might otherwise feel familiar. Spencer is far too absurd to function as a realistic biopic, but it’s an effective emotional portrait of a figure who seems fated to endless dissection in the public eye.