Listen to Austin 360 Radio

'Spencer' at Austin Film Festival: This Princess Diana tale is a perfect Halloween movie

Eric Webb
Austin 360

Of course Princess Diana should be haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Of course she should suffer from “Black Swan”-like hallucinations while trapped with a bunch of royal ghouls for Christmas. And of course, of course, she should sulk and skulk around the frozen grounds of Sandringham wearing a ball gown in the dead of night.  

Most of our real-world fairytales are horror stories, which everyone should know by now. We listen to enough true-crime podcasts. But director Pablo Larraín really, truly gets it, which he demonstrates in the deliciously weird Diana tale “Spencer.” The film closed out Austin Film Festival on Thursday, and it’s out in theaters on Nov. 5.  

The opening frame reads, “A fable from a true tragedy.” That right there is what saves “Spencer,” and what saved Larraín’s “Jackie” before it. You can view these interpretations of Princess Diana and Jackie O as part of a diptych: two films that never strive for factually slavish biopic standards, but instead conjure ghosts from our modern mythologies through stunning, strange impressionism.  

Oscars 2022:Kristen Stewart vaults to the front of the best-actress race as Princess Diana

Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana in "Spencer."

As “Spencer” starts, Diana (played by Kristen Stewart) is en route to the royal family’s annual Christmas retreat in the country. By this point, she and Charles (Jack Farthing) are barely speaking. Their young marriage is in full frost, as Charles carries on with Camilla Parker Bowles and an isolated Diana crumbles under the cruel indifference of her supposed family, the oppressive traditions of the crown and the predatory eye of the press. She’s also struggling mightily with an eating disorder. 

Still, there are saving graces — her boys William and Harry (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry) can break her out of her despair, and Diana’s devoted dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) treats her like a friend, not a cog in a mechanical crown. Sandringham also just so happens to be next to Diana’s beloved childhood home (though it’s now boarded up and fenced off). 

More Austin Film Festival: 'C'mon C'mon' and give a tender Joaquin Phoenix your time

This all might not be enough to free her, as just a few days of holiday in a snake’s nest overseen by a royal functionary (Timothy Spall), who was put in place by the snakes to keep Diana in line, threaten to snap what’s left of her spirit. 

We’re not watching “The Crown.” We’re watching a full-on thriller. Larraín dials up the genre transplant that “Jackie” dabbled in, with dinner scenes filmed as psychological horror and tip-toe missions to dusty old estates presented like Southern gothic mysteries from decades past. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood joins the madness as composer, scoring those lush old castle hallways and early ‘90s hair with slasher strings, and the princess’ most distressed moments with discordant jazz. 

The royal family members, aside from Diana, barely speak the entire film. Charles is an elusive monster. The supporting players — even the brave soul wearing that blazing Fergie-as-Wynonna-Judd ‘do — are either crypt-silent or just part of a polite, gestalt murmur. They’re artifacts in a living tomb, certainly not family members to Diana.  

It’s about ‘how she makes us feel’:Kristen Stewart says Princess Diana movie isn’t a biopic

Pablo Larraín's "Spencer" recalls much of what made his Jackie Kennedy movie, "Jackie," so refreshing.

The queen sits, and watches, and seems to smirk. On the rare occasion that she opens her mouth, she makes a cryptic remark about currency to Diana. She’s a sphinx. 

Stewart is the opposite of a cipher. Her Diana is open-hearted, kind, fun – but also the squeakiest wheel that ever did squeak. As she chafes and cries, you start to wonder if maybe she’s the problem, after all, before you realize that’s why Ingrid Bergman’s turn in “Gaslight” gave name to a sinister phenomenon. Like Natalie Portman’s first lady in “Jackie,” Stewart doesn’t go for a pitch-perfect impression of Diana. She tilts that feathered blonde head so subtly that you barely realize how much she’s turned the public construct of the People’s Princess on her head, a wild, desperate human being that a paparazzi lens could never capture.  

More Austin Film Festival:Why UT Austin alum Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' is one of his best yet

Like any good fable, Larraín laces this reinvention of pop culture lore with symbols, symbols, symbols. Bright, beautiful fruits and vegetables are contained within cold, impenetrable military crates upon the kitchen staff’s arrival to the house. A pearl necklace is a guillotine. The dialogue from Steven Knight’s script often lands like a heat-seeking missile: “I’m looking for somewhere,” Diana tells the flabbergasted patrons of a café where she has stopped to ask for directions. “I have absolutely no idea where I am.” 

In one bizarre, surely-did-not-happen scene, Diana wears the same red and green as the feathers of the film’s omnipresent pheasants, both bred to serve a doomed purpose for the crown’s pleasure. It all feels quite occult.  

It’s the best death-cult film of the year, perhaps. Very early in “Spencer,” the camera lingers on a sign in the kitchen. “Keep noise to a minimum,” it reads. “They can hear you.” 

'Spencer'

Grade: A-

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing

Director: Pablo Larraín

Rated: R for some language

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Watch: In theaters Nov. 5