The True Story Behind Spencer—And What It Can Tell Us About Princess Diana
Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, a fantastical imagining of a few fateful days in Princess Diana‘s life, begins with an epigraph that notes the film is “a fable from a true tragedy.” The true tragedy, of course, is the dark story of the late princess’ life, which included a turbulent marriage to Prince Charles, the pressure of being a member of the royal family and facing unrelenting scrutiny from the public and the media.
Kristen Stewart stars as Diana. The movie speculates about the turmoil that she might have experienced before her divorce from Prince Charles. Set over three days during the 1991 Christmas holidays at the Sandringham, one of the royal family’s country estates, the movie offers a glimpse of Diana’s innermost thoughts and feelings as imagined by Larraín, amid the purported real-life tensions within the royal family and the dissolution of her marriage
While the film is inspired by real-life figures, longtime rumors and real events, it is still very much a work of fiction, anchored by Larraín’s experimental direction, which includes, among other things, hallucinations and a visit from Anne Boleyn.
Here’s what’s fact and what’s fiction in Spencer.
Separation of Prince Charles and Princess Diana
It is set in 1991. This film was made one year before the official separation of Diana and Charles in December 1992. This was eleven years after they wed in 1981; at this point in their marriage, there had been years of rumors and speculation of marital strife, much of which was attributed to Charles’ sustained and longtime affair with his first love, Camilla Parker Bowles.
The painful canker of Charles’ affair is apparent in the film when Diana realizes that the pearl necklace that Charles presents to her at Christmas is the same one that he also gifts to Camilla, a scenario that had actually happened at another time with another piece of jewelry to the real Diana. A scene from another film. Spencer This photo shows Diana and Charles standing apart after the Christmas service. It is a rumor that this actually took place in 1991.
Enjoy holidays with the royal family
Spencer Diana is always weighed when she arrives at Sandringham. This causes her to be unhappy and it also affects her whole time at Sandringham. The royal family has a tradition of weighing their own bodies before and after Christmas dinner. It dates back to 1900s when King Edward VII wanted people to eat enough.
Diana’s discomfort during the holidays was also something that drew from real-life experiences. In a 2020 documentary about holidays with the royals at Sandringham, Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell said that she used to tell him that she was “crawling the walls” by the end of a Sandringham Christmas and “couldn’t wait to escape.” Sandringham was also the site of unhappy memories for Diana: According to Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography, Diana, Her True Story during Christmas in 1982, she attempted suicide by throwing herself down the stairs at Sandringham because of Charles’ continued affair with Camilla. In the film, she is also referred to as being overwhelmed by rigid royal protocol. Despite her unease during the royal family’s Christmas festivities, Diana continued to attend even after her separation from Charles, for the sake of their children, only skipping Christmas in 1995.
Diana’s eating disorder
The film doesn’t shy away from showing the sobering realities of Diana’s struggle with the eating disorder bulimia, showing graphic scenes of her bingeing and purging. According to Morton, who allegedly spoke with Diana through secretly recorded tapes, Diana’s eating disorder began the week after she got engaged and continued for nearly a decade. According to the book, Diana said that it was caused by Charles’ comment and the stress from his affair.
“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,” she said.
In the film, Charles makes a loaded comment about Diana’s bulimia, chastising her for wasting food, a sentiment that Diana, in real life, alluded to having heard from people around her, during her famous 1995 Panorama Interview with Martin Bashir
“You have to know that when you have bulimia you’re very ashamed of yourself and you hate yourself,” she said. “And people think you’re wasting food—so you don’t discuss it with people.”
Diana’s childhood home at Sandringham
In the film, Diana’s time at Sandringham House in Norfolk during the holidays brings up happy memories from her childhood and of her father, with the princess even visiting Park House, an abandoned residence on the Sandringham estate that once belonged to her family. Diana lived in Park House from the time she was three years old until her 14th birthday. In 1983, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Queen of England, offered Park House to Diana as a hotel.
Diana’s relationship with palace staff
Spencer, Diana has no qualms about interacting with the staff at the palace, even though there’s a strict code of behavior that staffers follow in front of the royals. She relies on the emotional support of some staff members, especially the royal chef (played in the film by Sean Harris), and Maggie, her dresser (played on screen by Sally Hawkins).
In the movie, Maggie confesses to Diana that she’s in love with her. There isn’t any evidence that Diana ever made romance over dressers. McGrady confirmed in a 2020 documentary about holidays with the royals that Diana liked “to come in for a chat, just sort of walk around the kitchen and see what was going on.”