Very spoilery, of course. If you’re after my Spencer review, it’s here.
Spencer is about a three-day period one Christmas in the early 1990s. Diana is joining the rest of the royal family at Sandringham (one of the Queen’s houses) in Norfolk; she and Charles are not yet separated. It’s an imaged series of events, what might have happened as the Princess of Wales, feeling ever more closed-in and watched, tries desperately to work out how she can escape.
Past and present are all there is and there is not future, Diana tells her boys, and throughout the film past and present both trap her and eventually offer a path to freedom. Diana, initially self-aware and self-deprecating, finds, as the stultifying days go by, that the past and the present are merging, both her own childhood and adulthood, and her life and that of Anne Boleyn, who visits her.
Parallels in Queen Anne’s own life and treatment by Henry VIII reinforce the idea that individuals are nothing compared to the continued existence of the Crown — its existence is its reason for existing, and that has always been, and will always be, the way. The institution of Monarchy trundles on down the centuries, not caring for any of the individuals who can’t or won’t comply with its archaic rituals and rules, both major and minor. But Anne’s response also gives Diana hope, and lessens her isolation. Her discovery that someone else in the present day loves her too also gives her strength to move forward.
I’ve covered the key points in the film below including the ending. (Which is hopeful — pointing again to how her past can help her find her freedom.)
Diana arrives late at Sandringham, turning up even after the Queen, which is a considered a great snub. She got lost en route, after deciding to drive herself rather than come with her security officers. Stopping nearby to get her bearings, she bumps into Darren, Sandringham’s head chef. He wants her to hurry but instead she runs over the fields to a scarecrow which is wearing her father’s old red coat (Diana grew up in a now-derelict house on the Sandringham estate). She takes down the coat and brings it back to the car, before driving on to Sandringham.
At the house there’s a new equerry in charge, Major Gregory. He’s weighing the guests including all the Royals. It’s an old tradition, weighing before and after, and everyone is expected to put on 3lb to show they enjoyed the festivities. Diana doesn’t want to be weighed.
She reunites with her boys, William and Harry. Harry is cold and Diana asks why the heating can’t be turned up. In the boys’ room, she explains why the Royals open presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. She explains in the royal family there is no future, only past and present.
A book has been left in her room — Anne Boleyn: Life and Death Of A Martyr. A rail of outfits is also there, each one labelled for its occasion (eg Christmas day breakfast, Christmas morning church, etc). She also has her old dresser Maggie, which delights them both, though Maggie is soon sent away. Diana is also still suffering from bulimia.
At the Christmas Eve dinner Diana is wearing a string of chunky pearls given to her by Charles for Christmas. She knows he’s bought the same pearls for his mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles. (The ageing Queen looks stunning by candlelight, dressed in silks, dripping in diamonds, the institution of monarchy made real.) Diana breaks the necklace and the pearls fall into her soup, the colour of which matches her dress. She continues to eat the soup, choking on the pearls, before it transpires she’s imagined it and the pearls are still safely round her neck. (The pearls are a constant presence. She doesn’t like what they represent but keeps wearing them; they link her to Charles, and are also part of a royal uniform.)
At church on Christmas morning, Diana is dressed in a scarlet coat; everyone else looks incredibly boring, wearing muted colours that match the dreary landscape. (Diana is always in lovely colours or beautifully textured fabrics, like the birds hunted on the estate by Royals in gloomy country squire camouflage). She sees Camilla outside the church. Diana, Charles and the boys pose for waiting photographers.
Diana continues to be late for meals, and family photographs. Her mind is also becoming tangled as the real actions of the Royals and their staff, designed to make her fall into line, combine with imagined horrors. Initially self-aware — she laughs at herself when she starts talking to her dad’s old coat, which she has put on a mannequin — as the festive period continues she becomes more frantic and frightened. Maggie has been sent away, presumably to further isolate the Princess, but at one point Diana speaks to who she thinks is Maggie and it turns out to be another dresser entirely.
In the grounds one afternoon, she is approached by Major Gregory, who reminds her she has to dress for dinner. Dinner is at 8pm and it is now nearly 5. She is unwilling to go straight back to the house, and he starts telling her a story from his days in the Forces, a colleague regaling him with a tale about an untameable horse the man’s family had bought. Before the man could finish the story he is shot dead. Major Gregory then pulled the body in front of himself to protect himself from further bullets. Gregory reiterates that it’s all about the Oath to the Crown — all are in service only to the Crown. Individuals don’t matter.
Diana’s curtains have been sewn shut by her replacement dresser, supposedly in case photographers lurk in the distance (Diana has been spotted by staff changing with the curtains open). She is also self harming again, cutting her arm with wirecutters.
One night she puts a coat on over her evening gown, borrows some wellies and trudges across the fields to her old home. It is derelict now, but she cuts through the wire and goes in. She remembers sitting in front of the fire at Christmas as a girl, and goes upstairs to her old bedroom.
She sees Anne Boleyn, who tells Diana that Henry VIII had given her and Jane Seymour identical miniature paintings to wear round their necks. “Go, run!” Anne tells the Princess.
A mixture of flashbacks from her near and distant past intermingle: this is the past and present. Young Diana cycles along the Sandringham roads, before an older, schoolgirl Diana runs through the grounds in her uniform, and an adult Diana sprints on like a relay. She’s wearing a yellow dress and matching tricorn hat. Young Diana dances for the older Diana in a tutu. The older Diana spins and pirouettes in glamorous evening gowns down a royal corridor. In one shot she stands at a window wearing a long black dress that looks like mourning. Back in the derelict house, she pulls at the chunky pearl necklace and the string breaks, the pearls rolling down the stairs.
Maggie is back at Sandringham. She and Diana drive to the coast. Sitting in the dunes, Diana asks how she shall be remembered in a thousand years — she’s noticed that the longer the time since someone’s death the shorter the description of them used. She also asks Maggie if it’s true Maggie had been talking about Diana’s mental state to Charles. Maggie admits to Diana that she is in love with her and they laugh; Diana the Shocked is how Maggie now says Diana will be remembered.
William is going on his first shoot with Charles, though Diana doesn’t want him to go. The shoot picnic is again planned like a military operation. Everyone is dressed for the country. The beaters rush the birds out of the safety of the woods out into the open, and the shooting party start firing. Diana appears out of the woods wearing her father’s red jacket; she is always in plumage. The shooting stops as she goes forward shouting that she wants to take the boys home.
Charles agrees to her demand, while the Queen looks annoyed. Diana, William and Harry run off hand in hand.
Now all dressed in jeans, after weighing themselves altogether on the scales the three of them leave Sandringham house and get into Diana’s sports car. Darren offers them a packed lunch of Royal leftovers but she refuses, as they’re going for some real food. In the car is a note from Maggie: “It’s not just me who loves you”.
They drive off with the roof down, while Maggie watches from the window. The three sing along to All I Need Is A Miracle (second line: “all I need is you”) by Mike & The Mechanics. The scarecrow in the field is now wearing Diana’s yellow dress and tricorn hat.
Major Gregory, who previously denied putting the Anne Boleyn book in Diana’s room, replaces it in the library. Charles goes in to tea with the Queen and the rest of the family.
Once in London, Diana and her boys stop at a drive-thru KFC. When asked for her name to go on the order, Diana says “Spencer”, her maiden name.
The three sit on a bench by the Thames at Tower Bridge eating their food. Diana leans on the railing looking thoughtful.
Spencer is released in UK and US cinemas on 5 November 2021.