Spencer Primer: What to Know Before Seeing Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana Movie
This Friday, Kristen Stewart returns to theaters with what might be her most anticipated film yet (for royalists, at least): Spencer, a psychodrama in which the California native channels Princess Diana for three stressful days of the late royal’s life. The film hails from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) and Chilean director Pablo Larraín, the visionary who gave us Jackie—and this enduring GIF…
…suggesting that Spencer will give us style, mood, and an intimate portal into the mind of one of the most famous women of the 20th century. Given that the film—a fable spun from a true tragedy—parachutes viewers directly into one particular holiday weekend with minimal exposition, we’ve assembled a brief for prospective Spencer audiences so everyone is fully prepared. (After seeing the film, be sure to return to Vanity Fair for more posts about Spencer particulars.) For now, though, do follow along.
The premise: The film opens in 1991, with Diana headed to Queen Elizabeth’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, England. The 72-hour-period—which spans Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day—is a never-ending procession of lavish feasts, formal wardrobe changes, and strange traditions held onto since Queen Victoria’s days.
“What I didn’t want to do was a biopic,” screenwriter Steven Knight told Vanity Fair of his script. “I wanted to do a snapshot, like a paparazzi photo of her, like so many people did—and hope that within one particular weekend of pressure, stress, and joy, it was possible to find out who the human being was behind the icon.”
What Spencer is based on: Before beginning to write, Knight tracked down former Sandringham staff members who had witnessed Diana’s holiday visits to the estate. He relied on firsthand accounts of the holidays, rather than royal biographies or other source materials about the royal family.
Speaking to Vanity Fair, Knight says, “The great thing about the truth and reality is it’s always so weird and bonkers, and much more outlandish than anything you create. So everything in the movie that seems unbelievable is true.… I spoke to people who served and observed. And I got actual events, things that happened, stepping stones, which you could use to create the drama.”
While Knight won’t reveal who he spoke to specifically, he got the general sense that the staff members “really rooted for Diana. They really wanted her to be okay. So there was a sort of a warmth and a humanity in an environment where she was surrounded by tradition and things that have never changed and will never change.”
“I think of her as a defenseless warrior,” adds Knight. “In other words, she goes into battle, but she’s got no weapons. She’s got nothing to defend herself with. And I think anyone would want to help and would want to defend that person, because she was so vulnerable, and she was coming into this environment from the real world. Granted, she was rich, and her family, actually, were very aristocratic, but she lived a relatively normal life. Then suddenly she’s in this world where there are no compromises.”
The state of Diana and Prince Charles’s marriage by this point: Not good. The film picks up a decade after Diana and Charles’s fairytale ’80s wedding, after the couple welcomed two sons, princes William and Harry (who are nine and seven in Spencer). They’ve both had romantic relationships outside the marriage (for her, former riding instructor James Hewitt; for him, former girlfriend and future wife, Camilla Parker Bowles), and public scrutiny of their relationship has always been fierce.
For timeline reference, Diana was so unhappy in her marriage that in 1991, she gave secret interviews for a bombshell book, Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story. The book, which details Diana’s struggle with bulimia, suicide attempts, and an unhappy marriage, would be published the following year and seal her split from the royal family.
Sandringham 101: Sandringham is the queen’s country house in Norfolk, which has long been a favorite royal residence for the holidays. Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather George V gave his first Christmas broadcast there in 1932, and called it “the place I love better than anywhere else in the world.” Elizabeth’s father, George VI, was born and died at the 20,000-acre estate. Elizabeth still uses it as her family’s holiday home base.
Diana, however, hated Sandringham—its old-fashioned rituals, stuffy atmosphere, and all-around strangeness. But oddly enough, when Diana was born, her family was living at Park House, a rented home on the estate—meaning that Diana spent her early years on the same property she would find herself as a princess.
“The fact that she lived her young life at Sandringham, in a house that was now boarded up, was like, if you made that up as a dramatist, it would seem too convenient,” says Knight, who mines this detail in Spencer.
Even as a child, though, Diana disliked the queen’s Sandringham get-togethers and the holidays in general, because of what it represented in her broken home. In Diana: Her True Story, the princess recalled her siblings being invited to spend holidays with the royals:
In the same book, Morton wrote of Diana’s adult years at Sandringham:
Sandringham’s strange rituals and formalities: The Windsors aren’t just traditionalists. As the documentary Sandringham: The Queen at Christmas makes clear, they are also a military family—meaning that the 72-hour holiday is scheduled with military precision and strict attention to royal protocol. For example, even now, arrivals at Sandringham are choreographed—with the more junior royals arriving first and the senior royals following.
Per a tradition dating back to Queen Victoria, guests are still required to weigh themselves on antique scales upon arrival and before leaving—the rationale being that they only enjoyed themselves if they gained three pounds. By 1991, Knight says that Diana’s bulimia was known within palace walls but never discussed. “The fact that someone with her condition was coming to a place where you have to be weighed when you arrive,” says Knight, is particularly resonant.
Per German tradition, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve—a difficult rite of passage for Sandringham newcomers given the royals’ fascination with cheap presents. There are formal black-tie dinners on both Christmas Eve and Christmas, with seating plans drawn up by the queen herself. (One rule: couples are split up to make for better conversation.) Table etiquette is important—apparently, according to the aforementioned documentary, guests should not sprinkle salt and pepper directly onto their food, but on the plate itself. Wine glasses should only be touched at the stem. When the queen puts her fork and knife down, all of the guests must also put down their utensils.
On Christmas, there is the annual photo-call and walk to church before the queen delivers her yearly holiday broadcast. The Christmas dinner is a black-tie affair for which tiaras and fine jewels are encouraged.
The queen’s dresser, Angela Kelly, has revealed that the monarch changes wardrobes up to seven times a day during the holiday period—and sets the tone for what the other guests are to wear.
“Once Her Majesty has chosen her dress for dinner, a handwritten notice is pinned up in the Dressers’ Corridor detailing what she will be wearing, so that the Queen’s ladies’ maids can select an appropriate dress for the lady they are looking after,” Kelly wrote in her book The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe.
Former royal butler Paul Burrell has said of the grueling wardrobe changes, “You get up in one thing, then you have to change for church.… You might change for lunch. You might then change to go for a walk in the afternoon. And then you will change for dinner.”
“It can be quite exhausting,” added royal expert Richard Kay, speaking in Channel 4’s A Very Royal Christmas: Sandringham Secret. “It was one of the unbending rituals that both Princess Diana and the Duchess of York found quite hard to adjust to.”
“Imagine Diana in her circumstance, and the fact that everything’s based around food, and everything’s based around what you wear, and how you look,” says Knight. “And that means what shape you are. So everything is about what’s in the mirror, not what’s really there. I used mirrors a lot in script because it’s about reflection, and she’s not the reflection. She’s herself.”
Which royal family members appear in the film? Not many. Unlike The Crown, which follows multiple characters in parallel storylines, Spencer is told strictly from Diana’s perspective. And she was incredibly lonely at Sandringham—meaning that there are not many recognizable royal cameos. Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry) feature in several scenes, as does Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and, fleetingly, Queen Elizabeth (Stella Gonet). If you watch closely, you can also catch a brief glimpse of Camilla (Emma Darwall-Smith).
Does the story end on a grim note? A light spoiler: The film gives Diana a happier ending than she had in real life. Explains Knight, “The film has got a happy ending, and I really wanted that to happen, because I think she deserved a happy ending there.”
Published at Thu, 04 Nov 2021 22:00:00 +0000