Directed by Pablo Larraín and written by Steven Knight, Spencer pulls viewers into an eerie universe, alike in all ways to the world of Princess Diana we know, but shockingly spooky and uncomfortable to watch.
Reader Warning: The movie Spencer contains graphic depictions of Lady Diana’s eating disorder. It is not easy to watch or suitable for all audiences. If seeing or reading about eating disorders is triggering for you, I would not recommend seeing this film. I am not going to go into much detail about this part of the plot at all, though I did see it necessary to be included with caution advised.
When booking my tickets to see Spencer on Tuesday, November 23rd, I was surprised to see the film was rated R. To be fair, I didn’t know much about it before seeing it, but as an avid The Crown watcher, I expected another typical portrayal of Lady Diana. This movie was anything but. The Crown in itself does a terrific job at describing the misery and isolation the Princess felt in her time in the palace, but it is much more biographical than Spencer. The Crown focuses on telling a story rather than emotion. Spencer is incredibly raw and graphic. Since its release, it has been described as a “horror movie” and “disturbing”, and I would wholeheartedly agree. The trailer, in my personal opinion, was slightly vague and borderline misleading. I expected the film to stretch over a much longer time period in Lady Diana’s life, when in reality the entire 2 hour film covers only one weekend: Christmas and Boxing Day in 1991.
The details of the Royal Family’s Christmas weekend spent in Norfolk are incredibly eerie. From a cinematic perspective, Spencer could be comparable to the visual aesthetics of some Wes Anderson films, and Midsommar. The lighting is extremely overexposed, to the point where the only thing standing out in a given scene is Diana (played by Kristen Stewart) herself, which I’m sure was intentional. The cinematography makes me as the viewer feel anxious, enthralled, and quite cold. No, seriously, it looks absolutely freezing where they are. If only the Queen would allow for the heaters to be on…
The basic plot follows a three day Christmas celebration. Lady Diana arrives at the Queen’s estate in Norfolk late for the Christmas Eve Dinner. She appears to already be upset and frantic about the weekend before she even arrives, and does not feel comfortable attending the dinner due to a number of reasons. Though as per tradition, the family cannot start until every member is present. This rule is central to the plot of Spencer. Lady Diana’s eating disorder makes it extremely difficult to eat or even be around food, something the Royal Family characters seem to ignore. They are hyper aware of Diana’s painful relationship with food and her intense depression, but they see it as a publicity stunt and a call for attention. The characters throughout the movie lack any amount of empathy, and just in general, are cruel. They take away Diana’s basic comforts, forbid her from the only elements in her life helping her through the weekend, and even, subtly but not so subtly, threaten her.
Christmas weekend 1991 was not just a random date the creators of Spencer chose. It is historically significant because of two events: one, due to Diana’s eating disorder, she wasn’t looking very healthy or happy when in public, and no longer wanted to fake it. This caused the British press, who were constantly harassing Diana, to pay extra close attention to her. Her health and figure were the main story in every tabloid. And two, the relationship between Lady Diana and Prince Charles of Wales was suffering. He was no longer bothering to hide his ongoing affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, and, according to the film (which does not claim to be historically accurate but is based on Lady Diana’s life), Charles had recently gifted Camilla pearls, and proceeds to give Diana the exact same pearls for Christmas. Amidst all of this, Lady Diana is expected by Charles and the Royal Family to act as if nothing is wrong.
Another detail central to the plot of Spencer is the emergence of Anne Boleyn, former queen of England and second wife to Henry VIII. If you don’t know the story of Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn, the short version is that the two were married after Henry VIII cheated on his first wife with Boleyn because he wanted an heir and his first wife could not give him one. Their marriage didn’t last long though because Henry VIII continued to engage in adultery even with Boleyn (specifically with her bridesmaids, to be exact), and Anne Boleyn also couldn’t give Henry VIII a son. She was ridiculed and hated by many for her image, and when Henry VIII wanted out of the marriage, he accused her of false crimes and had her beheaded. Because divorce looked bad? The creators of Spencer bring Anne Boleyn in as a character living in Diana’s conscience. In Diana’s mental spiraling throughout the movie she sees Anne Boleyn more and more. This detail was included presumably to symbolize a connection between both women. The queen’s butler/assistant had been advised to leave the book about Anne Boleyn on Diana’s bedside table as a subtle threat. The writers are essentially wanting Anne Boleyn to carry a message of, “If you continue to act how you are, the same thing will happen to you.”
The film, overall, was not to my personal preference. I definitely think it holds a powerful message and I am glad I was able to see it and feel it all. It’s not the kind of movie that I would pick to watch on a Saturday night with a bowl of popcorn, but it does leave you wondering how realistic it all is and what Diana’s life was truly like from her perspective. And, it really highlights her emotional relationship with her children more than anything I’ve ever seen. If you are already a fan of The Crown, and you are comfortable with psychological thrillers, I do recommend seeing Spencer if not only for a new take on Lady Diana’s life. And, shockingly, it did have a happy ending.