Pablo Larraín’s Spencer starts off with a title card informing us that it is “a fable from a true tragedy,” so we understand from the start that liberties may be taken. Like the writer-director’s earlier movie Jackie, it explores the inner life of one of the world’s most iconic women during an emotionally intense few days. Spencer takes place at Sandringham—the royal residence where the queen and royal family traditionally spend Christmas—in 1991, when Charles and Diana’s marriage is truly headed for the rocks. Ordinary divorcing couples may compete for custody of the children, friends, and dog, but the Waleses were also wrestling over who would come off best in the court of public opinion and in the historical record, both leaking their version of the marriage breakdown through friendly biographers and journalists.
Told entirely from Diana’s perspective, the film makes no attempt to appear impartial but entirely reflects the Dianaphile interpretation of events. As the invocation of a “fable” suggests, it can be seen as a reworking of a dark fairy tale of an innocent princess trapped in a vast castle at the mercy of an evil queen. Below, we look at where the myth intersects with reality.
The Weighing Machine
Arriving (late) at Sandringham, Diana is pressured into sitting on a large, golden, and rather ancient-looking scale to have her weight recorded, informed by Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), the queen’s equerry and house majordomo, that her majesty expects everyone to be weighed on arrival and departure to see if they’ve put on the 3 pounds that will indicate whether they’ve truly enjoyed Christmas—not something somebody with an eating disorder needs to hear.
According to Ingrid Seward, who has been immersing herself in royal family lore for decades as editor of Majesty magazine, this is indeed a tradition at a Sandringham Christmas. It began with the well-upholstered king and notable gourmand Edward VII, who wanted to be sure his guests had eaten well.
Major Gregory (Timothy Spall)
Major Gregory is not a real person but seems to be loosely based on Air Marshal Sir David Walker. Walker was the queen’s equerry (basically an elevated personal assistant) from 1989 to 1992 and later her master of the household, in which capacity he would be responsible for the running of the royal households and managing the below-stairs staff.
All That Chanel
Diana causes quite a stir when she wanders into the local gas station shop to ask for directions carrying an enormous tote emblazoned with the Chanel double-C’s logo. Later, she is seen driving her Porsche wearing similarly logo-ed sunglasses and appears in a number of Chanel jackets and evening gowns.
In reality, Diana stopped wearing anything with the Chanel logo after her divorce in 1996 because, according to Australian designer Jayson Brunsdon, who acted as a style consultant to the princess on her last tour Down Under, it triggered a painful memory. “I found a pair of Chanel shoes, and I said, ’well these would look great with the Versace,’ ” Brundson recalled, “and she said ‘no, I can’t wear linked Cs, the double C.’ So I asked why, and she said, ‘It’s Camilla and Charles.’ ” However, in the early ’90s, Chanel was still part of her wardrobe, if not perhaps to the extent the film would indicate, but star Kristen Stewart is a Chanel brand ambassador and the house re-created some of their designs for Diana in Stewart’s size.
Diana’s Relationships With Her Dressers
Diana’s clothes become a battleground and a way of asserting her independence. Each outfit is labeled with the occasion it is to be worn for (e.g., Christmas lunch, Christmas Eve drinks). Diana is fine with this when the clothes have been chosen for her by her favorite dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), who also acts as a confidante, but she bristles when the major replaces Maggie with another dresser and takes out her displeasure on the unfortunate replacement and refuses to wear the assigned items.
The real Diana played a very active role in choosing her own outfits and was unlikely to have clothes chosen for her, according to Eleri Lynn, who curated an exhibition of Diana’s clothes at her former residence, Kensington Palace. Diana reportedly paid close attention to the reaction to her outfits in magazines and newspapers, repeating outfits that were praised, cutting the ones that were panned, and carefully considering every sartorial decision.
The dresser’s job was to make sure the clothes were cleaned, pressed, and ready to go and to help the princess into them. If Diana wanted style advice, she was more likely to turn to her personal stylist Anna Harvey, a former Vogue deputy editor, or a favorite designer. In her memoir, Harvey recalls Diana saying, “ ‘We’re going to Balmoral and we have to dress for tea,’ … and then we’d have to guess about the style of dress she should wear and find lots of options.”
Diana was close to one of her dressers, Fay Appleby. If the relationship wasn’t as intimate as that with Maggie (an imaginary character, if one who reflects the real-life affection for Diana from the queer community), Appleby was nevertheless a confidante. “She once said to me her life was like living in a gilded cage. I was there and listened to her when she was down,” Appleby recalled in 1997. Appleby was Diana’s dresser for six years until she left to start a family. (Diana discreetly attended the wedding and kept in touch with Appleby through the dresser’s long cancer treatment.)
The princess’s relationship with her alternate dresser, a woman called Evelyn Dagley, was indeed fractious, even though Diana herself had hired her. Wendy Berry, who had been a housekeeper for the royal household, broke with the tradition that retired royal servants don’t spill the beans and wrote a memoir called The Housekeeper’s Diary: Charles and Diana Before the Breakup in which she asserted that, contrary to being a downtrodden victim, “Diana treated her staff badly. … Ev was often reduced to tears because of Diana’s outbursts. One morning Evelyn came into Diana’s room with the breakfast tray—and Diana had a fit—‘God, Evelyn, What on earth have you been eating. You absolutely stink of curry. Get out and wash your hair, will you? I cannot stand that smell.’ ”
Diana’s Childhood Home
In the film, Diana is pining for her childhood home located on the Sandringham estate within walking distance of the main house. The house is now derelict and deserted, but Diana breaks in to relive old memories.
Diana was indeed born in Park House on the Sandringham grounds, a mile from the main house, and lived there until she was 14. It was originally designed in 1863 for Edward VII but then leased to the Spencer family. The movie suggests Diana returns to relive happy childhood memories there, but in fact, her childhood was notably unhappy, beset by feelings of abandonment after her mother left the family when Diana was 8.
After the Spencers moved out, Park House did not become derelict. In 1983, the queen donated it to a charity to provide an accessible country hotel for people with disabilities. Also, unlike the house in the film, it doesn’t have a moat.
Diana’s Eating Disorders
The movie’s most shocking scenes show Diana bingeing and purging, barely touching her food at lavish dinners, then sneaking down to gobble pastries in the vast pantry before regurgitating them.In his 1992 book Diana: Her True Story, Andrew Morton reported the marriage had become so bad that the princess was losing weight from depression and bulimia as early as 1982. After the princess’s death in 1997, Morton released tapes that showed his source for the information was Diana herself, tapes she had started making in 1991, although the Buckingham Palace press office continued to deny Diana had cooperated with the author. “The bulimia started the week after we got engaged and would take nearly a decade to overcome,” the princess says on the tape. “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,” the princess says on the tape.
In the film, Diana cuts herself with wire cutters and contemplates throwing herself down the stairs of Park House.
This also has a basis in reality. “When I was four months pregnant with William, I threw myself downstairs, trying to get my husband’s attention, for him to listen to me,” Diana says on one of the Morton tapes. She also confesses she used a razor blade to slash her wrists, cut herself with the edge of a lemon slicer, cut her chest and her thighs with a penknife during an argument with Charles, and attempted suicide no fewer than five times.
Was Diana Related to Anne Boleyn?
Major Gregory leaves a biography of Anne Boleyn, to whom the Spencers are related, by Diana’s bedside, possibly as a cautionary tale. Later, Diana breaks into Park House one night, where she encounters the ghost of the executed queen, who warns her of danger.
Diana was indeed Anne Boleyn’s 13th great-grandniece through an ancestor who married Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn. However, there is no evidence Diana felt any special kinship with Anne, and this visitation is probably meant to symbolize Diana’s fears that the royal family might go to any lengths to get rid of her. At low moments during the divorce, Diana did express concerns that her life might be at risk to keep her quiet. In a letter to her butler Paul Burrell (though some have questioned its authenticity), Diana wrote, “This particular phase in my life is the most dangerous. My husband is planning ‘an accident’ in my car, brake failure and serious head injury in order to make the path clear for him to marry.” Though no factual evidence has emerged to support this claim, that didn’t stop it spawning countless conspiracy theories after the princess’s death in a car accident.
Was Queen Elizabeth II Really So Unfeeling?
Larraín depicts the queen as cold and unsmiling, entirely unsympathetic to Diana’s plight (unlike the more balanced The Crown, which suggests the queen was worried about Diana but didn’t know how to help her, stuck as she was in the idea that royals did not get divorced, come what may). However, in Seward’s book The Queen and Di, she maintains Elizabeth had retained some affection for Diana, whom she had known for many years since Diana’s grandmother had been her lady-in-waiting, and saw her death as a terrible waste.
Was Charles Really So Awful?
Similarly, the film depicts Charles as unfeeling and rigid, unwilling to meet Diana halfway or to give up his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles.
Again, a more neutral observer has a different view. Former New York Times reporter Sally Bedell Smith, a biographer of the queen, Prince Charles, and Diana, said that Diana “mocked Charles’s ideas and declined to read her own briefing material or take the advice of the courtiers assigned to help her. As their marriage frayed, she abused Charles emotionally, taunting him for the medals he wore, for instance, and telling him he would never be king. To his credit … Charles did not respond in kind.” Moreover, Bedell Smith said, Diana was the first to be unfaithful, having an affair with her bodyguard Barry Mannakee in 1985. After Mannakee was transferred out of her household, she and James Hewitt became lovers the following November. It is clear that, as with so many divorces, there are three sides to the story: his side, her side, and the truth.