Pablo Larraín first came to my notice in 2015 when he was announced as the director of Jackie, a Natalie Portman vehicle scored by Mica Levi and produced by Darren Aronofsky that felt like scientists had created my perfect film in a laboratory. His recent release, The Club, was a quiet little film that delved into the issues with the Catholic Church’s penchant for hiding their wayward priests and caught my attention. While working on these quieter films is his bread and butter they’ve all had one odd trait – an unsettling undertone of gothic horror.
Nothing changes the tone of an idea like adding that subtle note of terror, the loss of reality that warps the world around you and sucks the life from a subject. With Jackie, Larraín worked to portray the few days after the death of JFK and the carefully curated image that Jackie Onassis preserved. Accuracy was more important, but the fable is the reason the director seems drawn to these subjects. He’s allowed himself more leeway in Spencer, a clear best-picture front-runner and the film that postures as a dramatic biopic and is, in fact, a horror film that feels all at once like someone threw Jack Clayton’s The Innocents into a blender with Charlotte Gilman’s feminist short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. While most audiences seem to have gone into this expecting something more akin to Downton Abbey, Larraín has instead delivered a modern, royal retelling of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Diana, Princess of Wales, was a fashion icon and legend even in America. I don’t remember much beyond hearing bits and pieces of the scandals she was subject to, but it permeated all Western culture when she was killed in a tragic car accident. That specter looms large over Spencer, the sensation of doom hanging like a cloud over the Christmas proceedings. The marriage between Diana Spencer and Prince Charles Windsor was strained after his affair with ex-girlfriend Camilla Parker-Bowles, leaving the proceedings uncomfortable and the family all pressuring Diana to smile for the cameras and fall into line with the traditions. It’s an eerie way to approach a ghost story, one that swaps out blood and viscera for metaphor and bulimia, but it manages to elevate above the idea of “elevated horror” (a phrase that plagues the film industry) and into a modern masterwork. It’s a gothic chamber piece, echoing off the walls while the woodwinds and strings of Johnny Greenwood’s score leave a creepy, eerie tone to the whole affair.
Oscar picks are usually down to a few obvious choices, but this year the statue is Stewart’s to lose. She’s turned in brilliant work for films such as Personal Shopper, Clouds of Sils Maria, Seberg, and my beloved Underwater, but here there’s a new level of nuanced pathos that could have easily felt cloying. Portraying Diana as a woman haunted by her circumstance and by the public perception of her marriage. We see her early on in a bathroom, vomiting up the food in her stomach as she struggles with anxiety and her image. She’s emotionally battered by her husband, who chastises her for this type of behavior while paparazzi loom at every public event, and the royal family constantly makes reference to her weight. The cage Stewart’s character is put in lives through false memory, through mistaken identity, and through torturous reminders from the staff that she is never real royalty and instead only a puppet for them to parade out to the world.
It’s frightening that Anne Boleyn is so present in the film, a reminder that when Henry VIII grew bored with her she was decapitated. Charles has grown bored with Diana and returned to Camilla, a woman who is never named onscreen and one that feels like an unseen Lady Macbeth, and now Diana constantly feels her neck in the brace of a guillotine. The pearls he gives her for Christmas, the same as he gifted to Camilla, are a collar more than a sign of love. Once in a while we get a jump scare but extended dinner scenes and domestic drama veer far further into terror than any blood or bone could offer.
You have to get excited about music from Johnny Greenwood. While the musician is still part of the band Radiohead, he’s long been a name in film and has turned in his masterpiece. Far closer to the band’s “Kid A” album than it is to a traditional piece of music, the entire length of this work serves as a perfect complement to the discomforting sensations leaking from the edges of the screen. There has been a lot of discussion about Greenwood in the last five years, but this is the other Oscar I see coming for this film.
Spencer is a perfect object, one that rattles around in my head still. It’s a showcase for Greenwood, Stewart, Larraín, and cinematographer Claire Mathon, but at its foundation, it remains a fable meant to remind us of the horror we create with our public image. Diana remains trapped in the cage she chose and on the path that is already determined for her. We can’t save her, but Spencer asks us to emote with her and turns out it’s easy when she’s played so beautifully. Haunted, horrific, sweet, charming, and uncomfortable, Spencer is one that’s going to stick with me for ages to come.
Spencer is currently in theatres.