BFI LFF 2021

Spencer review – a sumptuous and devastating ghost story

Kristen Stewart dazzles as Princess Diana in this beautiful, horrifying drama set over three nightmarish days in 1991

Pablo Larraín’s sumptuous and devastating Spencer is something of a ghost story. Not unlike The Shining's Overlook Hotel, you can sense the presence of past inhabitants walking the hallways of Sandringham House that stretch on uncomfortably forever. Even Princess Diana herself (played by a career-best Kristen Stewart) has a spectral silhouette as she wanders through the estate’s foggy grounds.

It’s no coincidence, then, that Spencer is about how time suffocates. “There is no future,” Diana tells her two boys. “The past and the present are the same thing.” It’s the holidays at Sandringham, 1991, and the princess must survive three days of outdated traditions and ceremony. Everything hinges on this picture perfect Christmas – never mind that Diana is deeply unhappy and suffering.

While her husband is apathetic, she instead finds a kindred spirit in the ghost of Anne Boleyn – or are these visits from King Henry VIII’s ex a malicious warning for what awaits if she fails to live up to The Firm’s expectations? Divorced, beheaded, died, and all that. “Will they kill me, do you think?” she asks one of her few confidants. Spencer is full of loaded lines that provoke the past, present, and future all at once.

This film is not an attempt at perfectly replicating recent history, as the opening title card can attest: “A fable from a true tragedy.” But Stewart entirely vanishes into her role with a compelling approximation of the People’s Princess teetering on the breaking point. Perhaps it’s because the actor knows all too well what it’s like to have the paparazzi lurking on your doorstep, but she does more than empathise – she emulates Diana’s pain. The naysayers may as well eat their words, like Diana swallowing her pearls in one of several macabre visions induced by her desperation.

In that sense, Spencer has more in common with a horror movie than a biopic. It’s like the walls are closing in, the princess's autonomy being ripped away little by little. That feeling of entrapment is best exemplified when Diana is punished by having the curtains sewn shut, as if to contain her in a regal prison. Jonny Greenwood’s score, composed of discordant strings and jazz melodies, alongside Claire Mathon’s microscopic close-ups, aid in replicating the princess’s paranoia – that sense of always being watched but never heard.

Larraín manifests Diana’s turbulent, inscrutable interiority into a living nightmare that validates her doubts and fears. It’s horrifying and beautiful, and one can only imagine that this is the film Diana would’ve wanted.

Spencer was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 5 November.

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