By: Kimberley Bond
Warning: this article touches on subject matter that some readers may find distressing.
The gates open, and the army arrives, with car after car driving onto the plush grounds – narrowly avoiding the dead carcass of a pheasant. Men march into the stately home, carrying box after box and dumping them onto industrial kitchen counters. The date flashes up: Christmas Eve.
The stern scene then cuts to a convertible, speeding along a wide, open road. The woman in it wrestles with a map, looking around the endless rolling farmlands. “Where the f**k am I?” she asks.
The opening few scenes of Pablo Larraín’s Spencer immediately show the contrast between the strict, regimented royal family, and the wild, unrestricted Diana, who’s struggling with her role as a royal.
Despite being repeatedly told in the film that Christmas is “just a bit of fun” by advisers and royals, the three days Diana spends at Sandringham in 1991 seem to be anything but. Christmas with the royal family is a military operation, with every aspect of the festive period planned to the most precise detail: the times of when they’re meant to arrive, the clothes they’re meant to wear – even how much they all weigh is recorded as part of the ‘hijinks’ that Diana is forced to abide by.
- Spencer director on how “mystery” of Diana impacted film’s depiction: ‘No one really knew her’
With these strict rules in place, it is little wonder that Kristen Stewart’s take of Princess Diana becomes increasingly wild. Stewart’s Diana is not as beguiling as Emma Corrin’s wide-eyed and youthful Shy Di, who absorbed every mannerism and affection during her tenure in The Crown. Stewart’s take on the Princess of Wales is akin to that of a feral cat, lashing out when pushed into a corner. The tension palpable between herself and the rest of the family, Diana finds herself growingly desperate to escape the stifling environment. Comparing her situation to that of Anne Boleyn’s, she begins to imagine herself as the Tudor queen, and tries to escape to the grounds to her old, childhood home. While the audience watches Diana’s more erratic behaviour with concern, her behaviour is dismissed by those close to the royals as her “cracking up”.
Stephen Knight’s writing doesn’t provide a sympathetic or even remotely likeable portrayal of the Royal Family – the Queen is a cold, glacial figure, showing more warmth and affection for her army of corgis than her own daughter-in-law. Haughty Prince Charles, a sneering portrayal by Poldark villain Jack Farthing, is equally hateful: with his affections clearly elsewhere, he is cold and unfeeling towards his struggling wife and poking fun at her bulimia as if it was yet another character ‘flaw’, more proof that Diana is unsuited to royal duties.
As much as Stewart is phenomenal as Diana, eclipsing her co-stars with her powerful performance as the troubled princess, Spencer is in no way suitable for anyone who has had any issues with food or their weight. Food punctuates the film, with the excess and indulgence of the royal family’s multiple decadent banquets over the Christmas period on full display. The act of eating is portrayed as visceral and animalistic, Diana hungrily slurping on soup, crunching and choking on her pearl necklace before immediately purging – we see her physically force her fingers down her throat before vomiting into the toilet bowl.
While her bulimia is significant, particularly as Spencer shows Diana in a fragile mental state, I doubt I’d be the only person who will question whether it was necessary to show Diana’s eating disorder quite so literally, particularly as her battles with bulimia are quite widely publicised and the scenes are definitely triggering.
But as much as the film does show a rather bleak imagining of Diana’s mental state, Spencer endeavours to show her warm, caring side. The scenes Stewart share with Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry, who play Prince Willian and Harry respectively, act as counterpoint to the royal family’s glacial attitudes towards her – she sneaks the boys secret presents they can open on Christmas Day (instead of Christmas Eve, as the royals decree) and plays games with them away from prying, judgemental eyes.
Diana’s desperate, unconditional love for her boys is what spurs her in the final few moments of the film to take them away from Sandringham on Boxing Day and to do the most ordinary, un-royal thing possible; buy a KFC and eat fried chicken straight from the bucket. Confidante Maggie’s (Diana’s sympathetic ear, wonderfully played by Sally Hawkins) final words to the Princess ring in our ears as Diana finds the inner strength she needed to leave the royal regime behind: “All you need is love, shocks and laughter.” And Larraín’s Spencer shows that Diana found that, in the love and adoration she felt for her boys.
For information and support on matters raised within this article, visit www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/.