Spencer: The Best Psychological Horror of 2021

Similar to most children of South Asian immigrants (and apparently, just children of middle-aged mothers?), I was raised to adore Princess Diana. For as long as I can remember, I was plied with pictures of her awkward curtsy encaged in tulle while my mother and grandma lectured us in hushed, saddened tones. Every immigrant woman I’ve ever spoken to has addressed the late princess as if they were her dearest school friends, regulars at her tea parties. My mom’s stories (which were, in hindsight, completely inaccurate—I should not have believed her for even a second), cast a virginal halo on Diana’s already-stunning facade. I never thought to question it as a child; she sounded like a real-life commoner-to-princess Barbie, cloaked in bereavement I was too young to process. She was the only perfect person in the whole world, encased in amber forever. 

However, as I got older, I realized I knew nothing about her death at all, pestering my mom until she caved and bought me a tabloid about Diana’s love life and affairs. What a mistake that was. I can’t even begin to fathom why my mom would possibly give that to middle-school me, but it was the only reading I had for a 15 hour road trip. 

It was only after reading that awful excuse for “journalism” that I began to realize a fundamental truth about Princess Diana: she is never depicted as herself. She is always a stand-in, a symbol, a trick mirror for the beholder. My mom saw her as a martyr; my grandmother, a child; the tabloid, a slut; and what about the general public? There is no living memory of Princess Diana as she is; we’ve only seen her as what we wanted to see. There is only iconography.

Therefore, I have a hard time acknowledging any criticism of Spencer as a movie that doesn’t stay true to the late princess. Her life cannot be any more bastardized than the image already propagated by the royal family. Would we rather have The Crown, an anglophilic retelling rooted in “giving a chance” to Windsor House’s historically abhorrent lineage, excusing its flaws on the grounds of how unattainably important its lifestyle is? I only had one standard for this movie: I should not end up liking the Queen. It’s like my version of the Bechdel test; please feel free to use it. 

On those grounds alone, Spencer knocks it out of the park. The royal family is characterized as so unbelievably stiff, callous, and boring that Diana can’t help but stick out. Although I understand the existence of a middle ground between this depiction and The Crown, there is power in characterizing real-life royalty as fundamentally hateable. Like Princess Diana herself, the monarchy is nothing more than a figurehead. There should be less trepidation about wielding the camera, the pen, or The Herald against their constant pop-culture idolization. Against them, Diana is the only character to root for, the only character with a shred of familiarity.  And what a character she is. 

To watch Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana is to sit uncomfortably close to a case study in captivity. Not once was I concerned with her accent or the preciseness of her posture (although both were spot-on). I was immersed in the most raw, and perhaps even most real, depiction of the late princess to ever exist. I have never been so captivated by a performance as I was by Kristen’s. She commandeered the film from the very first scene at the palace, inducing a visceral horror in the audience like a slap in our faces. We were trapped in a tiny box with her, suffocating from all her hyperventilating and itching to crawl out. 

 

It’s not that I believe Diana behaved exactly as Kristen depicted her in the palace. But being brought into the pressure cooker of a family so concerned with posterity, surrounded by people who were either stiflingly totalitarian or already Stockholmed into complacency, would drive anyone to the depths of insanity. This Diana isn’t a shy schoolteacher who became overwhelmed by royalty. Kristen Stewart is a Diana whose elegance shines through in the moments not captured by paparazzi, a woman of stolen laughter, shaking rage, and tender love. The pit in my stomach never dissipated throughout the movie, as I had to root for a doomed woman actively fighting tooth-and-nail for survival, ultimately digging her future grave. We watch the royal family flit ghostlike around her, encircling her as if in a royal retelling of The Shining. She is reimagined as the character who almost makes it out of the horror movie, and for that reason, Spencer is arguably the most significant contribution to the Diana canon of all time. 

Pablo Larrain’s Spencer is masterfully crafted, with a haunting score and stunningly claustrophobic cinematography. Its incitement of this discourse is perhaps the most telling sign of the power it wields; it’s a movie concerned not with accuracy but with gusto. Spencer’s strong suit was its precise discordance: the meticulously crafted moments when the thread of the narrative would fray, the pianos would hit an off note, and the camera would sway unsteadily in and out of focus. The audience is left feeling that they survived something impossible, satisfied with a nice, fairytale ending to a story that ironically culminates in a real-life horror.  

Be cautious what lens you use to examine this film. If you’re gunning for accuracy, step back and ponder what you hold to be true. 

Who do you need Princess Diana to be?

Leave a Reply