Skip to main content

You may have trouble with your in-laws. But do they make you weigh yourself before Christmas dinner?

That’s one of the many indignities Princess Diana faces in director Pablo Larrain’s new movie, Spencer. Apparently, the weigh-ins are a holiday tradition for the whole royal family, and even Queen Elizabeth II herself hops onto an antique scale before and after the celebration to check that she gained at least 3 pounds while vacationing at Sandringham House in Norfolk. It’s just “a bit of fun” to make sure the family members “enjoyed themselves” during their Christmas feasting. Ho, ho, horrifying.

Diana, played by Kristen Stewart, is losing pounds and struggling with bulimia. But her feeble joke, “I’m half jewelry anyway, that’s what I always say,” does not convince palace flunkeys that she can skip this particular humiliation. “No one is above tradition,” warns Major Alistair Gregory, a sort of paramilitary butler called in for the special occasion.

It’s a foreboding start to Spencer, which critics are calling Oscar bait. A title card at the beginning of the flamboyant film alerts viewers that it’s “a fable from a true tragedy,” and many of the incidents portrayed are imaginary (though the traditional weigh-in, sad to say, is not). You might think the glamorous holiday setting, covering three days in December 1991, could make Spencer an unexpected Christmas classic, à la Die Hard – but the vibe Larrain goes for is Halloween. Indeed, the movie’s November 5 release date is as close as it could get without premiering on All Hallow’s weekend itself.

But this is not a typical fright flick about a murderous dystopia or a killer who slashes at his victims in their dreams. Instead, Spencer is the horror story of a battered woman struggling to escape, alive, from her abuser. The movie delivers an Academy Award-worthy twist when you realize the villain isn’t who you think it is.

Ghosts and guns

At first it seems that notorious cheater Prince Charles is the obvious baddie. Not only is he unfaithful, he’s also so thoughtless he buys his wife and his mistress the same string of pearls as a Christmas gift. This negligence contrasts with the priggish attention the prince pays his diet: “Organic carrots. Please, be careful which box we take the carrots from, because he will bloody check,” Sandringham’s head chef warns the kitchen staff.

At the opulent holiday morning meal, Diana asks her husband how she looks. “You look fine,” Charles snarls sarcastically. “There’s one thing. The chickens laid the eggs, the fishermen caught the fish. Obviously, the bees made the honey. They all made such an effort to bring you breakfast. Please, do them the courtesy of not regurgitating it all into a lavatory bowl before the church bells even ring.” His other woman, Camilla Parker Bowles, is invited to the church service, where she stares at Diana hard enough to send the princess into a panic attack. Merry Christmas indeed.

Still, from the beginning, there are hints of who the real nemesis is, and it’s not Charles or Camilla. Major Gregory, the bureaucratic functionary played by Timothy Spall, doesn’t walk – he lurks. He also sees, hears, and watches everything, and the Princess of Wales is his grim, special project. Gregory is at his creepiest when he corners her, serial-killer style, as she’s raiding Sandringham’s walk-in fridge. “Still hungry, ma’am?” he sneers.

The major works hard to isolate her, sending away her only confidante, a ladies’ maid named Maggie, and replacing her with a servant Diana can’t talk to. He even plants a biography of Anne Boleyn for Diana to find in her bedroom. Anne was the second queen of Henry VIII, who ordered her head cut off after deciding to replace her with another woman. Diana is understandably alarmed, but Gregory shamelessly gaslights her when she confronts him. “I really have no idea what you are talking about, ma’am,” he says. Along with other disturbing visions, the princess starts seeing Anne’s ghost around Sandringham. A rumor reaches her that Maggie has told people she is “cracking up.”

Gregory is, of course, just a cog in the institution’s machine. He informs Diana that by stalking her, he’s fulfilling his oath to serve the Crown. The individual royal people caught in the gears of the establishment don’t matter to him. This is presumably why so much of Sandringham’s staff spies on the princess and spends amazing amounts of energy trying to control her, down to the clothes she wears at certain hours of the day. The queen herself barely speaks and glares at Diana with a regal air of menace.

Controlling, gaslighting, isolating: These are all standard tactics of abuse. Spencer seems to argue that the monarchy as an institution is a living, malevolent force, torturing the very people who live at its center. Charles uses the lingo of a victim of abuse to describe his commitment to doing his duty: “You have to be able to make your body do things you hate, for the good of the country,” he explains to his wife. After he finally overrules Gregory to stand up for Diana’s needs, he is the one who is greeted in the drawing room by his family’s chilly stares. In this light, some of the prince’s other actions, like having Diana’s drapes sewn shut, make him seem like a drowning man instinctively trying to reach the water’s surface by pulling down another swimmer: it’s about survival.

The climax of the movie happens in a haunted house. That’s Park House, a mansion that in real life is a less than a ten-minute walk from Sandringham. Diana lived there until age 14, when her grandfather died, her father inherited his Earldom, and she received the title Lady Diana Spencer. At Park House, she was the true girl next door, playing with her future brothers-in-law, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, but never with Prince Charles, who was almost 13 years old when his destined bride was born in a bedroom there. In Spencer, Park House has been boarded up and abandoned, which doesn’t stop a determined Diana from breaking in with a pair of wire cutters. Many traditional spooky house tropes are included: She almost falls through a rotten staircase, and a dilapidated child’s bed stands in a ruined room. Diana is haunted, quite literally, by happier memories of her girlhood and her wedding day. At a pivotal moment, Anne Boleyn's ghost reappears to save the princess and help her break free from the abusive forces controlling her life.

Spencer isn’t a perfect film. Some of its symbolism lands with a thud. "I hope your friend’s wild horse was never tamed,” Diana tells Gregory, as Kristen Stewart’s face shows she can’t believe she’s uttering that cliché. The script makes the princess repeatedly compare herself to the birds bred for hunting on the Sandringham grounds; one of the movie’s first scenes shows a royal caravan driving over a roadkill fowl, a shocking choice from the filmmakers, given Diana’s later fate in a car accident. Troublingly, Charles’s Christmas vacation bucket list includes teaching Prince William and Prince Harry to shoot pheasants.

The story also takes a sudden swerve, with Maggie, the loyal servant, returning and confessing her non-platonic adoration. Even in a darkened theater, I could sense the confusion of the audience at this sidetrack near the end of the film. And Diana looks confused, too. It turns out to be a simple narrative device, mean to reassure the perplexed princess that she is capable of prompting affection and sincere friendship in other human beings, even though she has failed to elicit any from her in-laws. It also serves to switch the film’s tone to a lighthearted one, which doesn’t quite work. We all know that Diana never gets her happy ending.

In many ways, Spencer reminded me of King Charles III, a 2017 Tony nominee for Best Play. Sadly, in Charles, Diana has become the ghost haunting the house of Windsor in a transition period. As Queen Elizabeth II nears the end of her reign, Spencer previews arguments that will be made about the future of the monarchy and its role in the modern world. One thing’s for sure: Diana’s life, nearly 25 years after her death, continues to affect the world she left behind in ways she never could have foreseen.