Spencer Shows That Princess Di’s Story Was Always A Horror

The heavily-anticipated snapshot of Princess Di’s most difficult days is surreal, sadistic and exactly as horrifying as her reality.

Name: Spencer
Where: Theatres and VOD
What: Movie, 111 mins.
When: From Thurs., Nov. 4
Genre: Drama
Why you should watch: Completely unlike any retelling of the famous story before it, Spencer weaves the tale of Princess Diana’s estrangement from the Royal Family with precision, skill and quiet horror. Over the course of three days, we watch Diana spiral into physical and emotional disrepair — and from inside her head, it’s hard to tell reality from hallucination. Spencer is genuinely terrifying, crushingly sad and remarkably human all at once — and it’s perhaps the greatest retelling of Diana’s life ever told.

Film poster of the movie Spencer.

You likely already know the tale of Princess Di’s life (and, eventually, death) with the Royal Family, but you probably won’t truly feel it until you watch Spencer. The film puts just three days of the late princess’s life under a tense, harsh microscope by detailing the painful reality of her physical, mental and emotional decline that preceded her separation from Prince Charles. Throughout the film, Diana’s anguish radiates through the screen, all the more visceral when juxtaposed against extravagant luxury and Christmas filigree — and Kristen Stewart is phenomenal in what is undeniably the performance of her career.

Despite its real-world subject matter, Spencer moves with the ethos of an art house horror: it’s frighteningly tense and often flirts with the surreal in a way that makes it hard to distinguish reality from psychosis. Diana hallucinates constantly throughout the film, and we hallucinate along with her. In fact, we feel everything with her: there’s a self-harm scene in the film that made me audibly gasp in pain. It’s just as horrific as any Wes Craven flick, but its impact doesn’t come from jump-scares or gore. The terror of Spencer is borne of quiet tension, everyday interpersonal violence and the mundane atrocities forced upon women who won’t do as they’re told. The film is heavy with an unending sense of dread, and not only because we all already know the ending.

There is no smoking gun in Spencer; no single act of violence thrust upon Diana to serve as a convenient lynchpin for her suffering. Instead, we’re forced to contend with the insurmountable cruelty present in every single moment of her life. The film forces us to count straws one by one as they are placed upon her back, knowing the whole time that she’s already past the breaking point. Some of the film’s tensest moments are also its most mundane: I hold my breath, white-knuckling my chair, as Diana is reprimanded for being late to dinner, as she mixes up her Christmas outfit with her Boxing Day one, as she is told to draw her curtains in the morning. You feel, just as she does: that there is never a moment to let your guard down.

Two images, side by side, of Kristen Stewart playing Princess Diana in the film Spencer.

From the casting to the score to the writing and everything in between, Spencer is a masterpiece. It’s a tragic film and certainly not an easy viewing, but it gives Diana’s story the intensity and severity that it’s always deserved. Perhaps most important of all, though, it does this while building a testament to her humanity. Most of the film focuses on Diana while she is entirely alone, which is important: it shows us that she is more than what was done to her. Unlike most of the stories told about her during her lifetime, Diana is not a caricature here. The title itself feels like a deliberate move to separate Diana from who the Royal Family turned her into, and it — and the film itself — finally gives her space to stand on her own.

Watch the official trailer for Spencer