In the dizzying and beguiling Spencer from director Pablo Larraín, there’s a running commentary on how frosty the Sandringham House is. For all its acquired decadence and displays of excess, it’s chilly more often than not, and Diana complains several times about how they won’t ever just turn the heat up. Sure, they’ll offer up more blankets and warmer coats and they’ll ask if she’s dressed warmly enough—they’re trained to seem accommodating, but they’ll deny any basic comfort.
It’s this level of paranoia that gives the film such an eerie exterior as we watch Diana be denied common friendliness and human warmth without those around her showing any notable signs of outright cruelty. A horror movie about the insidious nature of gaslighting, Larraín is upfront about not trying to tell a factual story. Instead, he’s taking this tragic portrait of a woman undone and liberating her as best he can.
In truth, he easily could’ve stripped the names and iconography away from the storyline and let the characters be anonymous and fictional as to spare us yet another twisted tale of a beautiful dead woman and it still would’ve been an effective and unsettling piece of filmmaking. Regardless, Spencer, self-described at the start as the “fable of a real tragedy,” is willfully defiant, handsomely dressed, and a scathing takedown of the systems and practices in place that so blithely allow someone’s spirit to crumble.
Stuck in the Sandringham House over the course of three days for Christmas, Spencer keeps a watchful eye as Diana binges, purges, dances, self-harms, and sprints as fast as she can within the walls she’s found herself ensnared by. Haunted by the what-ifs of her past and furious over her present, she’s looking for an escape, no matter the means and/or tool.
Larraín never shies from the claustrophobic nature of Diana’s stay and, as he did in 2016’s Jackie, he situates the camera so that we’re always present with her fatigue, anxiety, and anger, fixated on the slump or rigidity of Stewart’s shoulders. Diana is reprimanded numerous times throughout the film when she lets the curtains to her room open, allowing any photographer to see right inside her window. It’s that sense of impending doom and unease that keeps the film light on its feet, even if the gravity of the situation is pulling Diana down.
There’s a haunting aspect to the film, all of which is enhanced by the craftsmanship on display in all the technical areas. Jonny Greenwood’s score is ominous and jarring, rattling with every step taken. Greenwood’s immersive composition—along with the cinematography from Claire Mathon and the natural, isolated beauty of their weekend stay—helps Diana’s loneliness become one of the greatest sources of dread in the film, as every element further separates her from her surroundings.
We bear witness to the ugliest moments and Steven Knight’s script takes great pains to showcase her at her worst and most destructive. There’s one shot of Stewart in particular, in the Christmas dinner gown that adorns her on the movie’s poster, as she’s swanned out on the floor of the bathroom, having just purged after harming herself moments earlier. It’s a stunning composition, one that speaks again to the idea of beauty in the breakdown, and these “real” moments, when we see past the royal finery, are what allows Spencer to transcend any cliché or rote beats.
It’s been mentioned many times but is worth repeating just how captivating Stewart is in this role and every move, studied sigh, or gaze that holds just barely contained tears allows us to further separate her from the role. She brings a necessary youthfulness to the part, especially her scenes acting against the young actors playing her sons, and it’s in those moments of overflowing warmth or in sequences where she dances through the hallways that make her more than her pain. She’s defiant, too, and a third act deviation that bucks formality and embraces sillier escapism is a breath of fresh air. Both for the character and the viewers expecting a different outcome.
With radiant costuming and lush set design, Spencer is one of the most textured films of the year thus far. Dressed as a fairytale but imbued with unyielding touches of foreboding and anchored by a performance that is equal measures naked fragility and well-built strength, the film is as delirious as it is dazzling, a tilt-a-whirl draped in jewels. More than being a strictly, historically accurate take on a historical figure, instead the film looks to, and achieves, peering into what self-expression and independence looks like in a system that prides tradition and appearance more than anything else.
Spencer is now in theaters. Watch the full trailer here.