Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, a psychologically arresting film, acutely acted and sumptuously rendered, follows Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) as she arrives at the queen’s estate, Sandringham House, for a Christmas weekend in 1991. Though a biopic, the film isn’t based on any one historical event. Rather, the screenwriter Steven Knight uses the oppressive, foggy setting and suffocating palace intrigue as a launching pad to parse the princess’s failing marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), her mental-health issues, eating disorder, and her role as a mother to Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry).
Though Diana grew up near Sandringham, her return isn’t a homecoming. It’s a relocking of the bars to a stifling prison. At this point, few in the royal family like her. They find her self-centered, overdramatic, and unstable. Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), a superintending extension of the queen, is a domineering figure looking to control her. Charles is apathetic. Tabloid fortune-seeking paparazzi are roving the grounds hoping to get their money shot. Only Diana’s personal dresser, the caring Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and the reserved chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris) seem to see her not as royalty, but as a human in need of help.
In telling Diana’s story, Larraín and Knight take plenty of artistic liberties to reimagine her mythology — to linger in a different, more harrowing truth about her. To guide you through the fact and the fiction, we’ve interrogated the many unbelievable scenes in Spencer.
The Palace Staff
Chef Darren McGrady
One of the few palace workers Larraín’s alienated Diana finds comfort in is Darren McGrady, the soft-spoken royal head chef who often makes the princess her favorite snacks as balms for the wounds caused by her relentless family. In real life, McGrady served at Buckingham Palace for 11 years, and catered to Diana and Charles for four of those years. In a 2016 interview with Hello! Magazine, the real-life McGrady revealed: “I was always there, so sometimes she’d come in and vent about things she wasn’t happy with. Other times I’d see her just burst into tears and it was like, ‘What do I say? What do I do?’ Other times she told a dirty, risqué joke and you think, ‘I can’t believe Princess Diana just said that!’”
Equerry Major Alistair Gregory
In the backstabbing milieu of Larraín’s Sandringham House, Equerry Major Alistair Gregory, a former military officer, serves as the enforcer of the queen’s will. He is a stickler for protocol, requiring Diana to succumb to the royal retreat’s staid, traditional games (more on that later). He often uses items, such as a biography of Anne Boleyn, a distant relative of Diana’s, as a warning for what happens to royal women when marriages fall apart. The indelible character, however, did not exist and is probably an amalgam of men who served in similar roles at Sandringham.
The Royal Dresser
The only other person in Diana’s inner circle who seems trustworthy in Larraín’s film is Maggie, the princess’s royal dresser. Diana often confides in Maggie, distressing over the micromanaging instituted by the royal family, which curtails what she’s allowed to wear and where she’s allowed to go. Later Maggie reveals to Diana that she is in fact in love with her, and always has been, causing the princess to blush. In a Vulture interview with screenwriter Steven Knight, the scribe confirmed the character is indeed based on a real person on staff who was Diana’s confidante and who was in love with her, but he’s not revealing their identity.
The Decay of a Marriage
How Rocky Was the Union in Real Life?
Spencer takes place a decade after Diana and Charles’s vows, long after the bloom fell off the rose of their marriage. By that point, Charles was also five years into his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. The torrid marriage between Diana and Charles played out openly in the pages of tabloids. When Diana took her famed 1989 trip to New York City, where she visited HIV/AIDS patients at a hospital, playing with children afflicted with the virus, thereby destigmatizing the disease, she made the trip sans Charles, fueling rumors of discord between the couple. By 1992, with the release of her biography Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words, composed of interviews by her, penned by Andrew Morton, the rumors were confirmed. In 1996, they officially divorced.
Did Charles Give Camilla and Diana the Same Pearls?
One cause of discord between Diana and Charles in Larraín’s film is the prince’s decision to gift a stunning pearl necklace to his wife for Christmas. The problem: He gave an identical present to his longtime mistress Camilla Parker Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith). The thoughtless diss sends the princess into a mental tailspin, wherein she imagines breaking the necklace apart, and supping a discarded pearl from her pea soup. But the crack of the gem under her teeth, while a powerful metaphor for her swallowing the indignities levied by her husband and this family, is all a bit of fiction. The gift-giving snafu is not based in fact.
How Accurate Is the Depiction of Diana’s Eating Disorder and Mental Health?
Real-life Diana struggled with bulimia. Episode three of season four of Netflix’s The Crown delved into her early fight with the disorder. In Spencer, her same habit of eating, only to depart to the bathroom to vomit her meal, is also depicted. In interviews with Morton for the biography Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words, the princess told the author: “My husband put his hand on my waistline and said: ‘Oh, a bit chubby here, aren’t we?’ and that triggered off something in me — and the Camilla thing, I was desperate, desperate.”
In a republished iteration of Morton’s book, a transcript also reveals Diana admitted to throwing herself down the stairs at Sandringham in 1982 while four months pregnant with Prince William: “I had told Charles I felt so desperate and I was crying my eyes out. He said I was crying wolf. ‘I’m not going to listen,’ he said. ‘You’re always doing this to me. I’m going riding now.’ So I threw myself down the stairs.”
The Royal Protocols
The Dress Code at Sandringham House
A royal protocol Diana consistently pushes against in Larraín’s film is a programmed dress code attached to each meal at Sandringham. In reality, she did break royal protocol: Take, for example, her iconic “revenge dress” — a black asymmetric, figure-hugging dress she wore to a June 1994 event in London the day Prince Charles publicly admitted to his infidelities. The royals only wear black for funerals. (Fashion protocols are played to cheeky effect in episode two of season four of The Crown, wherein the Thatchers spend the weekend at Balmoral only to be scoffed at as interlopers when they appear to dinner in their evening wear.)
The Weighing Game at Sandringham House
When Larraín’s Diana arrives for the Christmas weekend at Sandringham House, she’s directed to weigh herself on a life-size scale. Everyone in the household is expected to participate in this “game,” in which the attendees measure how much weight they’ve gained over the holiday. This is reportedly a real game. The tradition began with Edward VII as a way to demonstrate the lavishness of the royal’s hospitality.
The Etiquette Around the Queen
What’s depicted in Spencer is reportedly true: If you’re dining with the queen, you are not allowed to sit until she is seated. Nor are you allowed to eat unless she is eating. When she is finished with her meal, no matter where you are in yours, you’re finished too. It pays to be the queen.
How Often Was Diana late?
The opening scene in Spencer finds Diana driving aimlessly, lost on her way to Sandringham. She ventures inside a café for directions. She arrives after the queen to take family photos and meals. But there isn’t much evidence to the idea that the princess was perpetually late.
Is That How Diana’s Childhood Home Looked?
On her way to Sandringham house, Spencer’s princess comes across a field containing a scarecrow wearing her father’s jacket. Not far from it is her childhood home, the abandoned, dilapidated Park House. The home did exist on the grounds of Sandringham, but there’s no evidence that the house had fallen into such disrepair by this point in Diana’s life. But it is a neat metaphor for her deteriorating marriage and feeling further and further removed from her happy origins. In 1987, the queen gave Park House to Leonard Cheshire, a charity that adapted the home into a hotel for people with disabilities.
Did Diana Love Fast Food?
She did, and she especially gravitated toward McDonald’s, where she would take Prince William and Prince Harry through the drive-thru to pick up Happy Meals. It was one of the many ways she helped her sons experience a semblance of a normal upbringing.
Was Diana a Phantom of the Opera Superfan?
The princess did indeed love her “middlebrow” musicals. She went so far as to rent the show’s real set in London’s West End and record her performance of the song “All I Ask of You” for her seven-year anniversary with Charles (the stunt was covered in season four of The Crown). In 1985, Diana also attended a performance of Les Misérables at the Barbican in London, famously wearing a black-velvet evening dress designed by fashion designer Bruce Oldfield.
By Robert Daniels | Vulture