This post contains spoilers for the 2021 film ‘Spencer.’
Pablo Larraín’s latest biopic, which focuses on the late Princess of Wales, has been lauded by critics and caused quite a stir. Those who would be expecting something similar to ‘The Crown’ will be in for a surprise. The film does not just follow the Princess, over Christmas Eve, day and Boxing Say 1991, but delves deep into her psyche, allowing the audience to simultaneously watch Diana but also inhabit the world that Larraín has created for her. Let’s take a closer look.
The film opens with the subtitle ‘a fable from a true tragedy.’ A ‘fable’ and the idea of truth directly contradict one another, already complicating the age old question of ‘is this based on fact?’ With this statement Larraín is trying to tell us that his story is both true and not true. Although it may not be true that Diana said this, or wore that at that exact time, I think it is conceivable to think that her trauma and upset was very real, even if it did not play out in that specific way, at that specific time. It is asserted that Diana’s life descended into tragedy, which is true, due to her untimely death. In summation, this statement I believe is trying to say that the film has a factual, emotional and psychological basis.
We are then taken inside Sandringham to see the Christmas preparations. Instead of seeing maids and chefs going about their business, first we see the army entering, searching the place and carrying several large boxes with them. It is revealed that food is inside the boxes, giving Christmas dinner a strange, militaristic feel. The chefs then enter, and are told by head chef Darren to get started. ‘Once more unto to the breach’ he says, a line uttered by Henry V in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, on the eve of battle with the French. The royal family appear to be spending their Christmas in some sort of battlefield. The two images of Christmas dinner and a battlefield directly oppose the other, and also style the royal family as cold and calculating – as this type of preparation is the norm for them. They are all on time, all present to carry their particular traditions on, bar one, who is late. It is she who breaks tradition: Diana.
Diana’s opening line of ‘where the fuck am I?’ Is punchy and daring, as I doubt anyone has ever heard the Princess swear before, apart from perhaps her nearest and dearest. It is also something that not not many people would bother imagining. At this point in the film Diana is driving to Sandringham and is lost. In the first few minutes of the film, Larraín is immediately trying to strip away the ‘Peoples Princess,’ image and is trying to tell the audience that Diana is just Diana, a normal woman who has got lost on the way to her family Christmas. The idea that Diana is lost, and at literal crossroads echoes her current mental state. She is trying to find happiness, and the synopsis of the film states that she is debating whether or not to divorce Prince Charles. She is physically and mentally at a crossroads.
Linking back to the idea of the royal family being cold, Diana remarks frequently, as do William and Harry, that they are cold. Diana notes that the family refuse to turn the heating on. The fact that only her, William and Harry point this out mark them as outsiders. It does make you wonder – how do the royals cope with being cold? Does this link to the idea that they could be cold hearted? Unlike Diana as the film suggests? Later on in the film Diana questions the boys about what their perfect Christmas would be, and what they describe dispenses with all royal protocol. The film shows that Diana and her children form their own independent trio, quietly rejecting and rebelling against the royal traditions that they are subjected too.
Diana is quickly given a pearl necklace by Charles. She immediately dislikes them, as she recognises that he bought the same set for Camilla. Diana thinks that the pearls imply that things are ‘all set,’ and that everything has already happened. While traditionally, pearls are symbolic of ideals such as purity, wisdom and serenity, in the film they symbolise the opposite. They remind Diana her that her husband is having an affair. Diana wears the pearls throughout the film, and she constantly tugs at them, as if they are physically uncomfortable. The pearls are symbolic of a chain or yoke, they represent Diana’s constant feeling of suffocation and claustrophobia. One particular scene sees her imagining tearing the pearls off at dinner, and then eating them. What causes this is the searing gaze of Charles and the Queen, a stare which tells Diana to eat. The destruction of the necklace hints at her desire to break free of the shackles, ie, the royal family, that contain her. While this image is striking it is also confusing, as I am unsure what her eating of the pearls it trying to convey. Perhaps it is her suicidal thoughts, and her attempts at self harm. As this is just her imagination, her pearls are very much still around her neck – she cannot break free yet. It is also worth noting that during the dinner scene, the non-diegetic music gets louder and intensifies, as does Diana’s discomfort and distress. This happens frequently throughout the film.
The pearls also link to another plot thread that runs throughout the film, the inclusion of Anne Boleyn. Diana spends majority of the film delving into her family history, and recalls that she is related to the Boleyns. The obvious parallel is that both royal wives are discarded for another, and believed to have had affairs themselves. Diana did have an affair, and although most historians agree that Anne Boleyn did not, the parallels are still obvious, as is the image of Boleyn’s iconic ‘B’ pearl necklace which she wears throughout the film. During the film we see Diana in the guise of Anne, and we also watch the two converse. Diana is actively interrogating, conversing and learning from her own history, in an attempt to reclaim it. She is not related to the Boleyn’s through marriage to the Windsors, but through her own Spencer blood. In the room where the royals eat dinner, three portraits hang, that of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. Diana’s family history is ever present, and overbearing. Her ancestors are constantly watching her, as are the royals.
It is Anne who finally encourages, and gives Diana the strength to tear off her pearls. Whilst going through her old childhood home, Anne tells her about when Henry gifted Jane Seymour a miniature of himself, which she wore around her neck. Anne possessed the same miniature, and tore it off of Jane with such force that her fingers bled. From this, Diana finds the strength from Anne to tear off her pearls, which cascade down the stairs. This happens in the latter half of the film, signalling Diana’s growing strength and increasing understanding of who she is. At one point William asks what has made Diana so sad, and the boys disagree over whether it is the past, present or future. The past could refer to Anne Boleyn, the present an obvious reference to her marriage. Diana says that ‘in this house, the past and the present are the same thing.’ Does this mean that Anne and Diana are the same? Their stories certainly have similarities, and at one point we do see Diana in full Tudor dress. If one did not know about Diana’s impending death, and they heard this statement, perhaps it would be enough for them to understand Diana’s fate. Diana’s statement may imply that she is not only learning about her past, specifically Anne, but actually living it.
On Christmas Day, the family attend church. All wear dull colours, apart from Diana. She wears a black hat, and a bright red coat. Red is associated with passion and anger, and oddly it reminded me of Mary Queen of Scots’ decision to wear red at her execution – so her blood would not show. Many saw Mary Queen of Scots as a Catholic martyr, and the colour itself is associated with martyrdom. Specifically the type of martyrdom that involved torture and violence. Red martyrs, as they are known, faced persecution of a religious nature. Although Diana does not die for religious reasons, the emotional outpour at her death has immortalised her in our history and culture, much like a real life martyr. Is this decision, for her to wear red, hinting at this?
During a conversation between Diana and Charles, across a pool table, Charles informs Diana that there ‘must be two of you,’ the private Diana and the one that ‘they take pictures of.’ He also says that Diana must make her ‘body do things’ that she hates. Is this a loaded reference to her bulimia? She feels that she has to make herself sick. If so, Charles is cold and unfeeling, and their physical distance, across the table, is representative of their difference in thinking and distance within marriage. He accuses Diana of having an affair, and at this time, 1991, Diana is not having an affair, but Charles is. As they talk, the sound of gunfire can be heard outside, as William and Harry are clay pigeon shooting. The sounds synchronise with Charles’ words, suggesting that his words wound Diana, as real bullets would. The only physical contact that Charles and Diana have is via a pool ball which Charles rolls to Diana, as if handing her some sort of challenge. After picking up the ball, she drops it, as if she is picking up the gauntlet, but then throwing it back down in protest. She is refusing to conform to Charles’ ideas and ideals.
Pheasants are also present throughout the film. Darren remarks that they are ‘bred to be shot.’ Those that are not, he explains wander into the road, and get hit by cars, as they are not very bright. Diana notes that a Vogue article once noted that she was ‘beautiful but not very bright.’ Diana seems to relate to the pheasants throughout the film, and this implies that she feels that she was chosen by the royal family just because she was pretty. She also think that this is why she is liked, and she recognises that when she wears something, other women imitate it. She feels like a pheasant with pretty feathers, who is admired by onlookers. Of course, the idea that she may be being bred to be shot may refer to the emotional abuse she suffered in her marriage. She was discarded once she gave birth to Harry, a moment which Diana herself compared to ‘shutters’ coming down. Diana was chosen, trained and bred to bear royal sons, after that, Charles distanced himself from her.
When she returns to her room, she is told by her maid that her curtains have been sewn shut. This is because Diana had left the curtains open, and the family were worried about reporters seeing her. Diana is also aware that everything she says is reported to others at Sandringham. So she plays the game, telling her maid that she needs be left alone to ‘masturbate,’ and adding that the maid can spread that information. While away, Diana uses wire cutters to tear her curtains back open, with such force that she hyperventilates and pants. She manages to break free from Sandringham for a moment, as throughout the film, it has seemed that she is slowly being trapped against her will. When the curtains are open, she nips her own arm with the wire cutters, drawing blood. This acts as some sort of release for her, as masturbation would allow for some sort of release too. It is likely that these two types of releases are different, but it is interesting that the two ideas appear in such close proximity.
It is at this point in the film that Diana returns to her ancestral home, which holds many Gothic qualities. The Spencer house is crumbling, and dark and dingy. It is the seat of an old, aristocratic family, traits that are shared with the early Gothic novels such as ‘The Castle of Otranto.’ Diana also stumbles up the stairs, as the foundations are failing. Her wavering grip on the banister is reminiscent on her loosening grip on herself and her family history. It is this that she is trying to reclaim. She does this also by taking her fathers old coat off of a scarecrow. She repairs it, and wears it throughout he film. It is here that Diana tears off her pearls, when she is most steeped and surrounded by Spencer history. It is interesting that this all takes place around Christmas time, a time that celebrates the birth of Jesus. Diana in a sense is being reborn, as she is rediscovering and reclaiming her Spencer heritage.
All of this comes together in the last few minutes of the film, as Diana is told by dresser Maggie that all she needs is love. Diana takes her ‘place amongst the pheasants’ and walks towards the family as they are shooting. Charles allows William and Harry to leave with her, and the three drive off and away from Sandringham, blasting the radio. As the camera turns to Charles, the lyric ‘never know what you got til it’s gone plays.’ How fitting.
When ordering a KFC with the boys, Diana notes that the order is for ‘Spencer.’ This is clearly where Diana is most happiest, eating a KFC with her children. It is also important that this is the last word of the film, and it implies that after much soul searching and attempts to reclaim her heritage, her heritage is now fully reclaimed. Diana was lost at the beginning of the film, now she is far from it. This is confirmed by her vocalisation of her name, ‘Spencer.’
Thanks for reading!