“It doesn’t fall into the trap of making Diana a saint”: a historian’s review of Spencer

New film Spencer sees Diana, Princess of Wales imagining the presence of another historic royal consort as she weighs up her own role in the royal establishment. Sarah Gristwood explores the events depicted, which take place over three days during the royal family’s Christmas celebrations in 1991, and reviews the dramatic choices made in the film…

Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales

Spencer, the new film about Diana, Princess of Wales, sets out its credentials from the very start. Against an opening shot of a car lost in a wintry landscape flashes up the declaration that this is “a fable based on a true tragedy”. And with those words, usefully, it sidesteps any of those pesky questions about historical accuracy that have dogged, say, Netflix series The Crown. All to the good, maybe. A rave review in the Daily Telegraph, lauding the “magnificently gutsy, seductive, uninhibited filmmaking”, noted with relief that there was “no risk whatsoever of [director] Pablo Larrain’s mad, sad and beautiful Spencer being mistaken for a historical fact”.

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It’s true. No-one is going to imagine, for example, that over dinner at Sandringham Diana (Kristen Stewart) really did rip from her neck the pearls Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) had just given her – and then crunch them up with spoonfuls of soup. Or that she really rescued her sons from the stifling bosom of the royal family by breaking into a Boxing Day pheasant shoot, dressed as a scarecrow, and dramatically snatching them away. There is not the danger – as there was with The Crown’s far more plausible inventions, its presentation of rumour as fact – that viewers will believe that these are the real, recorded events, and judge the royals accordingly.

And yet, in a different sense, Spencer does have its eye firmly fixed on history.

When and where does Spencer take place?

The action takes place over the three days of Christmas 1991 (though the dates are not specified). The following year (in 1992, the Queen’s annus horribilis), Charles and Diana would famously separate and there would no longer be any pretence of a united family. In the film, Diana arrives at Sandringham symbolically lost and (in defiance of etiquette) late: sneaking presents to her boys that they can open on Christmas Day – like every other child in the country – rather than on Christmas Eve, as the royals do, in the traditional German way.

British royals at Sandringham
British royals Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing a red coat with a black hat, Zara Phillips, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Prince Edward, Peter Phillips and Prince Charles attend the Christmas Day church service in Sandringham, December 1993. (Photo by Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)

Another tradition visualised in the film is that the royals did indeed spend Christmas at Sandringham (though between 1964 and 1989 the festivities were moved to Windsor Castle, to accommodate the ever-growing extended royal family). So, what about the Sandringham portrayed in the film? Spencer was shot in several German castles: notably a schloss [roughly akin to a country house] originally built for Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter – Victoria, Princess Royal, who became German empress and queen of Prussia – and is now a hotel. This is correct, in that the royal family still honour their German antecedents, and it dates from the correct era.

But it’s doubtful whether the combination of immense, barrack-like grandeur and five-star luxury portrayed on screen entirely reflects Sandringham reality. The tastes of the senior royals suggest a dated kind of cosiness running alongside historic splendour in their homes (famously, the Queen favours Tupperware containers for her breakfast cereal!) Equally depressing, to Diana’s taste, maybe.

Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales, in new film 'Spencer'.
Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales, in new film ‘Spencer’. (Image by Pablo Larrain / Neon / The Hollywood Archive/Alamy)

But the gargantuan meals are a reality (as is the name of the head chef ‘Darren’ – perhaps drawn from real-life Darren McGrady, personal chef to Elizabeth II – who is featured as a Diana supporter in the film). As for the telling scene where a reluctant Diana (secretly suffering with bulimia nervosa, as in realilty) is weighed upon her arrival: this is part of an arcane tradition that sees guests clocked in and out, to see whether they’ve eaten enough to prove they’ve had a good time at table. Official information describes only weighing scales – the same sort that jockeys use; dated c1872 but still at Sandringham – that ‘were’ used to weigh guests on arrival and departure. There are plenty who claim the bizarre, supposedly jokey, practice still goes on today.

The weight of tradition

Perhaps the point is this: there were a couple of ‘royal protocol advisors’ on hand to mean that anything Spencer got ‘wrong’, it did so knowingly. The dramatic choices all suggest the weight of tradition – and service and luxury – by which Diana is oppressed. The writer James Pope-Hennessy, visiting Sandringham in the 1950s, described it as “a hideous house with a horrible atmosphere in parts and in others no atmosphere at all”, adding, “It was like a visit to a morgue.”

Where the royals are concerned, of course, it’s hard for fiction to be any stranger than reality. In Sandringham, Diana tells her sons that there is no future; past and present are the same thing. The film’s point about time is pursued insistently. What will they say about her in a thousand years, she asks her devoted dresser (played by Sally Hawkins).

Royals, Kristen Stewart’s Diana notes, tend to be described by an ever-briefer tagline as time wears on – William ‘the Conqueror’, Elizabeth ‘the Virgin’. What will it be for her, she asks – Diana ‘the Insane’? Actually, finds Diana, a better answer lies in the title of a biography of Anne Boleyn which has been left beside her bed – a book about Anne ‘a Martyr’.

Unlike earlier screen versions, it does not make Charles a monster. In this, perhaps, it has gained from the perspective given by almost 25 years of history

But if the film is on Diana’s side, it does not fall into the trap of making her a saint. Nor – unlike earlier screen versions in the immediate aftermath of Diana’s 1997 death – does it make Charles a monster. In this, perhaps, it has gained from the perspective given by almost 25 years of history. Charles is not all bad, her dresser tells Diana – “none of them are”. Even the sinister, ever-watchful equerry Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), determined to corral the errant princess into the pen of royal protocol, is given a moment of humanity in which he explains his allegiance – to the Crown itself, rather than to any individual. It’s not an attitude that this Diana shares, but it is allowed its own validity.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, (Image by Neon / Courtesy Everett Collection/Alamy)
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, (Image by Neon / Courtesy Everett Collection/Alamy)

If the disapproval of real-life courtiers was probably more silent, or less openly expressed, that’s probably a compromise allowable to anyone trying to make a movie. Characters in the film suggest repeatedly that at Sandringham everyone hears everything; that there are no secrets. This perhaps alludes to the fact that it was from Sandringham that Diana made the bugged ‘Squidgygate’ calls to James Gilbey – leaked in such suspicious circumstances – that saw her, as well as her husband, condemned in the press for adultery.

Yet the moral of this ‘fable’ is that Diana not only would, but should break free of her particular prince, and the constraints imposed by his position. She does so with the support of an unlikely ally ­– the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson). The film chooses to draw a parallel with the idea that Henry VIII’s beheaded queen was another woman who married into England’s royal family, and wound up with every reason to regret it. In one dramatic choice, the film shows that Diana is distressed because the aforementioned pearls that Charles had given her are identical to those he gave to Camilla Parker Bowles, his long-time mistress. When Anne (she says) saw Jane Seymour wearing a miniature of Henry, identical to the one she herself wore, she simply ripped it off her own neck.

The lesson, clearly, is that Diana must do likewise – as in fact she did. Less dramatically and decisively than in the movie, perhaps – but it was at the beginning of 1992 that Diana wrote (considering the forthcoming Andrew Morton book, in which she had participated): “Obviously we are preparing for the volcano to erupt and I do feel better equipped for whatever comes our way.” Soon afterwards, she began the formal process of ending her marriage to a prince – a modern take on the old tale, maybe. And as for the fact she did not, in the event, live happily ever after… that is beyond the narrative of this fairy story.

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Spencer is directed by Pablo Larraín and stars Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales, and is out in cinemas in the UK from 5 November 2021