Frigid Family“Spencer” Amplifies the Horror of the Royal Family

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana standing on a lawn in dense fog in front of an English country house in a yellow tailored suit and tricornered hat

Kristen Stewart inhabits the role of Diana Spencer at Sandringham (Photo: Courtesy of NEON)

A pretty white bulimic spends the weekend at a remote country house under surveillance by an unfaithful spouse’s sinister, secretive family, descending into hallucination and madness. However indefensible as an account of the life of Diana Spencer, erstwhile princess of landmines, the premise of Spencer makes for a gorgeously frosty horror movie from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, whose previous work includes Jackie (2016), another biopic of another pretty white lady, that one starring Natalie Portman. (To my surprise, diva-lover Larraín seems to be heterosexual.) The film is fringed with body-horror, or maybe call it Chanel-horror, since the beautiful costumes themselves appear both as a weapon wielded against our final girl, and the medium of one of her more pointless acts of rebellion. The outfits were designed by Jacqueline Durran, who has won Oscars for Little Women (2019) and Anna Karenina (2012), and may well get a third here.

Kristen Stewart was a bold choice for Diana, but she acquits herself brilliantly, partly by channeling other, bittier actors: we get flashes of Chloë Sevigny, Elizabeth Banks, and, at a couple of points, Edie Falco. Stewart never lets us forget what a terrible actor Diana herself was, clumsily simpering at whomever she encountered, but Larraín has shot her in such a way as to remind us, too, that underneath that plasticky orange pelmet pulses the queer body of a rangy butch, unconfined both by the mandatory weigh-in (“to make sure you’re enjoying Christmas”) and by the equally punishing, albeit more refreshing, bursts of compulsive purging and self-mutilation-by-wire-cutter. 

A genuinely stunning late scene—a shocking burst of lush pleasure—points to the healing power of queer romance, and of lesbian laughter. The always stunning Sally Hawkins delights as the more likable of Diana’s dressers, and deserves the Best Supporting nom to accompany Stewart’s inevitable Best Actress. The movie as a whole, however, is more interested in the failures of heterosexuality than in any possible ways out: across a snooker table on which white, pink, and red balls have been arrayed with allegorical precision, an especially drippy Charles Windsor offers his bride the advice that “you have to make your body do things that you hate.” “That you hate?” asks Diana, incredulous. “That you hate,” Charles replies.

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The country house setting will remind viewers of Lars von Trier’s sad-rich-lady epic, Melancholia (2011), with the German Schlosshotel Kronberg hotel resembling von Trier’s Tjolöholm Castle, especially in Spencer’s many shots of the crisp, misty gloaming of dawn. Another visual touchstone is Todd Haynes’ Carol (2016), in which, as here, the palette of Christmas luxury is rendered dully. But to my eye, Larraín’s fastidious attention to visual symbolism recalls the Roman Polanski of Tess (1979) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).. Like leftovers on Boxing Day, no image in the movie goes to waste, recurring a few times each: a dead pheasant, a lobster, the coat on an old scarecrow. Larraín makes the most of each element with which he furnishes this world of privation-in-plenty.

The self-conscious artiness sometimes feels a bit at odds with Diana’s own plebeian tastes. While she seeks freedom in KFC and Les Mis, Larraín renders her as if she were the subject of a Dorothea Tanning composition. At one point a “Maria” is mistaken for a “Martha”; the Biblically literate audience will presumably enjoy a reference that sails over Diana’s head. And Timothy Spall, seemingly astonished to have been cast in a role clearly written with Edward Fox in mind, gives us his best Edward Fox, rather than let loose any of his usual anarchic energy. Perhaps there is a gentle contempt towards Diana? But after all, contempt is not the worst attitude to have towards the ingratiating self-pity of the ruling class.

As loathsome as the Armitages of Get Out, but abundantly less charming, it was about time for “the firm” to be rendered in the same genre; a soothing balm after all the Windsor-worship of the last decade.

And the inexplicable billionaires themselves? Larraín mercifully exhibits no interest in them, relegating them to a background of face-curdling chin work. But even if they weren’t the creepy, compulsive masochists he depicts, surely disestablishment would be too good for them. As loathsome as the Armitages of Get Out (2017), but abundantly less charming, it was about time for “the firm” to be rendered in the same genre; a soothing balm after all the Windsor-worship of the last decade.

The appeal of Diana, especially in death, was that one could see her either as a national emblem, “England’s Rose,” or, conversely, as a Republican heroine, a gormless feminine victim of the Windsors’ ghastliness. Remember how Charles had his valet hold the cup when he gave a piss sample? But neither of those presentations is blooded like Stewart’s Diana, dancing, leaping, and yelling at the world by turns. By exhuming Dynasty Di from her saintly casket, Larraín and Stewart have done the world a great favor, and have given us at last a Diana every bit as batshit as any of the inbred remnants of House Saxe-Coburg-Gotha––but a little easier to root for.

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by Grace Lavery
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Grace Lavery is a writer, editor, and academic. She lives in Brooklyn.