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Film / Spencer

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A fable from a true tragedy.

"Here in this house, there is no future. The past and the present are the same thing."
Diana, Princess of Wales

Spencer is a 2021 biopic drama film directed by Pablo Larraín (who made another biopic of a beloved and highly publicized woman from The 20th Century, Jackie) and written by Steven Knight.

In December 1991, the marriage of Diana, née Spencer, Princess of Wales and Prince Charles has long since grown cold. Though rumors of affairs and a divorce abound, peace is ordained for the Royal Family's Christmas festivities at Sandringham Estate, where she grew up. There's eating and drinking, shooting and hunting. Diana knows the game. But this year, things will be profoundly different. The film is an imagining of what might have happened during those few fateful days.

It stars Kristen Stewart as Diana, Timothy Spall as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory, Jack Farthing as Prince Charles, Sean Harris as Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady, Sally Hawkins as the Royal Dresser Maggie, Jack Nielen as Prince William, Freddie Spry as Prince Harry, Stella Gonet as Queen Elizabeth II and Richard Sammel as Prince Philip.

The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 3, 2021 and released in the USA and UK on November 5, 2021.

Previews: Official Trailer

This film provides examples of:

  • The '90s: The main story is set around Christmas 1991.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Towards the end of the movie, Maggie tells Diana that she loves her in a romantic way. While Diana is clearly quite fond of Maggie in any case, it's unclear if the romantic feelings are reciprocated.
  • Animal Motifs: Diana comes to identify with the pheasants the royals shoot for pleasure — common, pretty enough, but bred for slaughter. It's not a coincidence that her first moment of assertion is interrupting said shoot and demanding her sons come with her.
  • Arc Words: "Currency". Elizabeth II first uses currency to give Diana a thinly veiled warning about their reputation as royals and public figures (comparing her photographs to being on a bill). Darren later tells Diana that gossip about the royals is currency in the staff quarters. Finally, Diana herself tells Maggie that she really is just currency, but in a way of having accepted it and becoming more assertive as a result rather than trying to run away from it.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Downplayed, the Royal family are not portrayed as actively hostile instead they are mostly cold, indifferent and repressive towards Diana and are continuously trying to pressure her to conform.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Diana and Charles' marriage is portrayed as clearly beyond saving. Diana is unhappy with being a member of the royal family and pettily lashes out in ways that embarrass her husband; Charles is pretty blatantly cheating on her, contributing to the aforementioned lashing out; he is also seen teaching William how to shoot/hunt despite her protests. Maggie points out near the end that Diana would be much happier if someone would actually show her love.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Diana clearly dislikes the Royal Family's Boxing Day pheasant shoot.
  • Being Watched: One of the movie's major themes is just how much scrutiny Diana is under, both inside and outside Sandringham. Everything she says, does, or even feels is immediately spread around the estate and becomes common knowledge. Outside the estate, of course, there are paparazzi with high-powered cameras, just waiting for someone to leave the curtains open for a glimpse inside. The other royals have to deal with it, too, but the fact that they've been dealing with it all their lives (and the fact that Diana is getting extreme attention even for them) means they handle it better.
  • Big Fancy House: Sandringham House is as opulent as it is in real life, although it wasn't filmed there.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Diana decides to leave Charles and drives away from Sandringham with William and Harry, singing along to the radio and having a blast. But she's not free from the scrutiny of being a public figure, which will eventually lead to her untimely death in a 1997 car accident.
  • Bookends:
    • The film starts with Diana driving to Sandringham alone, confused and late. The film ends with her driving away from Sandringham happy with her children, and ahead of everyone's scheduled departure.
    • At the start of the film, Diana stops and sees the old scarecrow in the field near the house where she grew up, donning a jacket that she says used to be her father's. Upon leaving Sandringham at the end of the film, she passes by the same scarecrow and replaces the jacket with a set of her own clothes, specifically the yellow sailor-inspired dress that appeared in a flashback prior to this scene.
    • The film opens with a delivery of all the foodstuffs to be consumed in Sandringham over the weekend, to be properly prepared and presented by the team of chefs. The film closes with William and Harry happily consuming takeout KFC by a bench beside the Thames.
  • Campbell Country: The movie is set in Sandringham House, which is a royal manor house in the small rural parish of Sandringham. Accordingly, it's frequently overcast and sometimes foggy, which only adds to the atmosphere of gothic unease.
  • Canine Companion: Queen Elizabeth II is seen being accompanied by her trademark Pembroke Welsh Corgi dogs.
  • Character Title: The movie is named after Diana's surname Spencer, before her marriage to Charles.
  • Conspicuous Consumption: Being the oldest of the old money, the royals don't have the nouveau riche vibes that this trope often suggests, but they understand luxury as their birthright. There's an entire car just for the Queen's corgis.
  • Costume Porn: The outfits that Diana wears are simply gorgeous, even if Diana is less than thrilled to be wearing them.
  • Crappy Holidays: It's safe to say this isn't a happy Christmas for Diana.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Diana connects herself to Anne Boleyn, mentioning that Boleyn was executed by her husband for her (alleged) infidelities; this may be an allusion to the conspiracy theory that the royal family arranged Diana's death.
  • Food Porn: Emphasis is placed upon how much work and trouble goes into preparing meals for the royals. Accordingly, the food looks delicious, although Diana is rarely in the right state to fully enjoy it.
  • Gothic Horror: While it's not a horror movie, Spencer does play with many of the tropes, featuring ghosts, madness, unease, and a scene of Diana running through the fog in a white gown.
  • Haughty Help: Outside of Maggie and Darren, most of the servants that attend Diana behave coldly and haughtily, and obviously disapprove of her behavior.
  • Heroic BSoD: Diana suffers one on Christmas Day, when the stress of her circumstances becomes too much to bear and she flees dinner.
    "Tell them I'm not well! Tell them I'm not at all well!"
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The film depicts a very biased portrayal of Royal Family due to the story being told almost entirely from Diana's perspective. Not once does she seek any sympathy from anyone besides her sons and her conversations with Charles and the Queen are that of supreme indifference. Prince Phillip and Princess Sarah (who was also going through some marital troubles of her own with Prince Andrew due to his commitments as a naval officer) were reportedly soft with Diana and she was also a fun aunt to her nieces and nephews from the Windsor side of the family.
  • Hope Spot: Diana is slumped over in the bathroom during Christmas dinner, but her spirit is lifted when her beloved servant Maggie returns to the estate. The two hug...and then it cuts to reality, where one of the other, much more stern servants stares at her.
  • Ice Queen: Elizabeth II. She says very little in the movie, she observes what's going on but never betrays any emotion about it, and her only lines, which are spoken to Diana, are a coldly realistic observation about their status as public figures.
    Elizabeth II: They take a lot of photographs of you, don't they.
    Diana: Yes.
    Elizabeth II: Well, the only portrait that really matters is the one they use to put on the ten pound note. When they take that one, you understand. All you are, my dear, is currency.
  • Incompatible Orientation: At the end of the film while spending a day at the beach with the children, Diana's best friend Maggie tells her that she's in love with her. And Maggie lampshades this, acknowledging and respecting that Diana doesn't feel the same way. Maybe.
  • Individuality Is Illegal: There are elements of this, one of the royal activities is that everyone must be weighed before and after Christmas, Diana is under constant scrutiny from both many of the staff and royal family for not conforming.
  • Imagine Spot: Diana imagines various scenes happening that don't actually happen in real life. For instance, she imagines eating her pearl necklace when it drops in her soup, as well as Anne Boleyn's ghost.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Maggie plays this trope to Diana in person, telling her that she's in love with her but also accepting that Diana almost certainly doesn't feel the same way about her, but that it doesn't matter: Diana deserves "love and shocks and laughter". Diana is so startled and disarmed that she relaxes for the first time in the film and laughs.
  • Jerkass: Charles is portrayed as cold and condescending to Diana. He also tries pressuring her to conform, and his sons to participate in shooting pheasants for sport.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title: A biopic about Diana, Princess of Wales (née Lady Diana Spencer) titled Spencer. It's meaningful because she despises her status as a member of the royal family, and during a moment of freedom from them at the end, she gives her name as Spencer when asked at a drive-through.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: As with Pablo Larrain's previous biopic of a famous woman, the marketing for Spencer promised a more conventional biopic experience than what audiences ended up getting.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Zig-zagged by Diana. She's portrayed as being warm and friendly towards some of the staff, such as Maggie and Darren, but to others (primarily the ones who are clearly sided with the royals) she's quite cold and snippy.
  • The Ophelia: Diana is a beautiful young princess who becomes increasingly unstable from the pressure she feels. She goes from purposefully arriving late at family functions to stick it to her in-laws to wandering around her childhood home at night and hallucinating Anne Boleyn.
  • Pet the Dog: Despite it being abundantly clear that Charles expects Diana to make every effort to do what's expected of her (at least publicly), there are a couple of moments that suggest he is sympathetic to the pressure she's under. And even though he initially pressures his sons to join in the pheasant shoot despite them not wanting to, he ultimately allows them to leave with Diana.
  • Plot-Inciting Infidelity: Charles's infidelity is, by this point, clear to everyone and the humiliation Diana feels due to it is what drives the events of the film.
  • "Psycho" Strings: Diana's moments of discomfort and mental instability are accented with a sharp string score.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Prince William is expected to shoot pheasants. Charles insists he's old enough, but Diana doesn't think he wants to do it.
  • Ripping Off the String of Pearls: Diana has an Imagine Spot that she rips her pearl necklace off in the middle of Christmas Eve dinner. Later, she does it for real after she walks through her abandoned childhood home.
  • Sanity Slippage: Diana isn't turned permanently insane, but she gradually becomes more unstable as the movie goes on.
  • Shower of Angst: One brief scene shows Diana showering, and her dejected, slumped posture makes it clear she's having one of those.
  • Snooty Sports: Prince Charles has Prince William practice for a pheasant shoot with skeet shooting. Diana finds it disgusting, while Charles has accepted it as a 'noble' sport.
  • Starstruck Speechless: At the start of the movie, Diana ducks into a busy fish and chips shop to ask for directions. The whole place falls completely silent once they see who just walked in.
  • Stepford Smiler: Diana is portrayed as this, putting on a happy public face while struggling with mental illness, bulimia, and her husband's infidelity. However, since almost all of the movie takes place in Sandringham, we don't see her public face as much.
  • Stripping the Scarecrow: Downplayed. Diana is fully dressed when stripping a scarecrow from the red jacket because it belonged to her father and wears it, and later dresses the scarecrow with a yellow outfit of hers.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Besides Kristen Stewart as adult Diana, there's Kimia Schmidt portraying Diana at age 9 and Greta Bücker portraying Diana in her late teen years.
  • Title Drop: When Diana buys KFC for herself and her sons at the drive-through at the end of the movie, when asked to give a name, she says "Spencer".
  • Toplessness from the Back:
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Delayed" becomes a euphemism for extramarital affairs between Charles and Diana, after he accuses her of having been "delayed" to the party because she was cheating on him. He also states that he escapes scrutiny for his own affairs because he knows to "close the curtains" (be discreet about them), referencing a previous scene where Diana undressed without closing her curtains.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: The bulimic Diana spends a considerable amount of the movie on the bathroom floor with her head over the toilet.
  • Weight Woe: Diana struggled with bulimia at various points in her life, and we see it portrayed here. It's particularly stressful here because it's a actually royal tradition to gain weight during the holidays, to demonstrate how much everyone enjoyed the food.
  • Your Favorite: Darren, the head chef, is obviously fond of Diana and is sympathetic to her bulimia and oppression by the royal family. While preparing the royals' Christmas dinner he puts apricot soufflé on the menu specifically for her because he knows it's her favorite.