Pablo Larraín’s sympathetic “fable” about Diana, Princess of Wales, also compassionately addresses the secret shame of eating disorders.
CONTENT WARNING: this article addresses eating disorders and self-injury. See our spoiler-free overview of Spencer here.
If Pablo Larraín’s Spencer doesn’t change your mind about royalty being aspirational, then nothing will. Sure, you’ll have access to wealth and fancy clothes, but at the cost of your time and privacy. Every part of your life, every holiday, even “off time” with your family, is scheduled down to the last minute, and everything you do is judged according to tradition and propriety. Maybe it’ll be you who breaks tradition, who makes things different through sheer force of will. But probably not. You’ll be a dress-up doll in a glass case, to be taken out and shown off whenever the occasion calls for it, whether you want to be or not.
It’s Christmas of 1991. The “fairytale marriage” of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) has gone so far south that they can barely look at each other, but they’re forced to spend the holiday together at Sandringham Estate with the rest of the Royal Family. Tradition calls for it, after all. Though Diana’s sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry) are happy to see her, her reception from the rest of the Royals is chilly at best. Even the staff, particularly Major Gregory (a thoroughly loathsome Timothy Spall), treats her with condescending coolness, as if they know her days in the family are numbered. The only people who treat her with any sort of genuine kindness are her dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and head chef McGrady (Sean Harris), both of whom refuse to participate in the gossip that permeates the household.
In an unenviable position where her presence is both demanded, and unwelcome at the same time, Diana rebels in tiny ways, such as arriving late, wearing the wrong dress to church services, and leaving the curtains in her room open, a subject of great consternation for virtually everyone she encounters. But from the moment she sets foot in Sandringham, it’s easy to see who’s in charge. For starters, she’s forced to weigh herself, as part of a bizarre family tradition. Though it clearly makes Diana uncomfortable, Major Gregory insists upon it, under the Queen’s unbending direction. “It’s just a bit of fun,” he says, barely able to hide his smirk.
Mostly, the three days at Sandringham are scheduled down to the minute, requiring multiple outfit changes, and constantly being around each other (even if no one really seems to want to be there). Diana barely returns to her room before a servant knocks on her door to remind her that she has five minutes until the next event. Whether it’s opening gifts on Christmas Eve, or gathering around the TV to watch the Queen’s Christmas Day speech, bowing out to do something else, or even just to rest in one’s room, is simply not an option.
More than anything else, they dine together, lavish meals several times a day consisting of multiple courses and desserts. Everything is done with pageantry — even the food is delivered by a brigade of uniformed soldiers walking in lockstep, as if they’re escorting a military funeral. Everyone at the royal dining room table is assigned their own attendant, who hovers just behind them waiting until their soup bowls are empty, or their drinks need to be refilled. The family also watches each other, for signals as to when to eat, when to move on to the next course, and when the meal is concluded.
It’s torture for Diana. It would be torture for anyone who has an eating disorder.
The first thing you need to know is that people don’t develop eating disorders to get attention. Quite the opposite: we would like nothing more than to be left alone, to not have people commenting, whether well-meaning or otherwise, on our weight, how we look, how much we are or aren’t eating. Particularly with female bodies, the world at large feels entitled to share their thoughts on what we look like, always treating weight loss as a victory, even if it happens through less than healthy means. Until, of course, you become too thin, and then the remarks have a different tone.
Meals are particularly fraught with tension, as it’s all too freely noted both if we eat too much, or not enough. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the thick of an eating disorder, but I remember well trying to work out when we would be the best time I could slip away unnoticed to the bathroom, to get rid of what I had forced myself to eat (or enjoyed too much of), and try to undo the damage I believed was already done.
But at least I could get away. Diana literally can’t even use the toilet without someone again banging on the door, demanding that she return to the dining room, or make herself available for the next empty, meaningless event, with people who don’t even want her there.
Diana’s bulimia is the worst-kept “secret” in the household. Another dresser remarks that one of her dresses must be taken in because she’s lost so much weight. Charles all but hisses at her that, after the effort that’s been made to bring her breakfast, she should “do them the courtesy of not regurgitating it all into a lavatory bowl before the church bells even ring.” There’s no sympathy, or even worry in his voice. It’s distaste, and annoyance, and embarrassment that this broken, unbalanced woman, who can’t even finish a full meal, is now tied to his family in one way or another forever.
Only Chef McGrady shows her some compassion, careful to add dishes to the vast holiday menu that he knows Diana likes, in the hopes that maybe she’ll eat something. It’s an oversimplification of what drives an eating disorder, but at least he means well, and views Diana as someone who needs help, and not withering looks and passive-aggressive remarks.
By 1991, the world was only less than a decade into even being familiar with the concept of an eating disorder, following the sudden, shocking death of singer Karen Carpenter from complications of anorexia. It was (and still is today, for the most part) perceived as a made-up disease of privileged twits desperate to be the center of attention. Considering the lengths someone with an eating disorder will go to avoid being caught, it’s a strange perception. But, as with any disorder of the brain, we hate and fear what we don’t understand, and blame the afflicted for their affliction.
In Spencer, it’s a game they’re all playing with each other. The Windsors are forcing Diana to spend the holidays with them, but also resent her presence, because she’s the one the press is interested in, and who the public loves. So, the “game” in which everyone has to weigh themselves as soon as they enter the estate, that’s a punishment for her. Insisting that she participate in endless, elaborate meals, where no one does anything but eat and look at each other, that’s punishment too. You don’t want to eat? We’ll make you eat. Diana fantasizes about showing Charles how wounded she is, by breaking a pearl necklace he gives both her and his longtime mistress for Christmas into a bowl of soup and chewing on it, damaging her teeth. In reality, her rebellion is quieter, stealing away to restrooms and bringing it all back up, the toll it takes on her body worth the small victory it gives her. You can make me eat. But you can’t make it stay.
An eating disorder isn’t born in a desire for attention, but rather a desire for control. Get to know a bulimic or an anorexic, and you will likely find someone who grew up in an abusive household, or was a sexual assault survivor, or in a highly dysfunctional relationship. It’s not just “weight control,” but the need to keep something for one’s self — in this case how much food we do or don’t allow into our bodies. It’s why binge eating is often done with secret stashes of food, and why some bulimics will go so far as to drive to a store away from home so they won’t get caught vomiting. If we wanted attention, we’d do this out in the open, daring our loved ones to stop us.
We know what people think of it. We know what people think of us.
Much of Spencer is fictitious, creating a sort of alternate universe Diana who simply walks away from the Windsors after years of torment, reclaims her family name, and has a happy ending with her adored sons. It’s hazily lit, often feeling like a dream. It makes all the more poignant and tragic the moments where Diana looks like a trapped animal, deeply sad and absolutely exhausted. When she can get away to be by herself, even if it’s to force herself to vomit or dig at her skin, it’s a strange sort of relief. In making herself smaller, it gives them less that they can take away.
Spencer is now playing in theaters.