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still from Spencer movie trailer


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Paul Asay

Movie Review

She was a nursery school teacher when she met the prince. She loved dancing, liked fast food, and the British public embraced her immediately. Her wedding seemed plucked straight from a Disney movie: Her dress boasted more than 10,000 pearls and a 25-foot train, and an estimated 750 million people watched as she took her vows—omiting the word “obey.” Instead, she promised Prince Charles she would “love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health.”

But 10 years after that storybook wedding, Princess Diana’s marriage is anything but a fairytale. By 1991, her marriage is over in all but the law’s eyes. She and Charles barely talk.

But no matter. English royal families are expected to celebrate Christmas together. The Queen expects—no, demands it.  And Diana is still a princess.

So Princess Di makes her way to the palace in her Porsche, motoring down backways without a driver, without security, utterly alone. She steels herself for the four-day holiday, filled with must-wear outfits and must-attend responsibilities and must-smile dinners and must and must and must

But even though she knows this area of England intimately—she was born and raised nearby after all—she loses her way. She stops to ask for directions at a low-brow eatery. “Where am I?” she asks.

It’s both a plea for directions and, in a way, a cry for help. Diana is lost. Even if she finds her way to the palace, she is lost indeed.

Positive Elements

Diana has issues, no question. But throughout the movie, we’re sure of one thing: She loves being a mother, and she wants to be the best she can.

When her son, William, asks her if she actually wants to be the Queen of England (when Prince Charles inherits the throne), she answers, simply, that she wants to be “your mum. That’s my job.” Her boys are clearly devoted to her, and she to them, and before the movie ends she literally risks her life to whisk them away from what she considers a soul-crushing environment.

The environment (Spencer suggests) certainly is crushing Diana’s soul, what with all the royal family’s rules and responsibilities and traditions. But many members of the staff are sympathetic to the princess’s plight. Maggie, Diana’s dresser, serves as Diana’s top confidante and a surprising source of strength. Darren, the palace’s head chef, promises to personally prepare Diana’s favorite dessert and encourages her to not let the royal family—or her royal responsibilities—break her. He tells her that the staff members don’t laugh at her behind her back, as they do with other royals. “They are kind,” he says of the servants. “And they are worried. They want you to survive.”

Spiritual Elements

The movie takes place during Christmas, and the royal family goes to a church service Christmas morning. Diana and her boys long for a Christmas “miracle” (which, according to Harry, would be a Christmas where no one had to follow any rules and one could do whatever one liked). But Diana says that miracles just don’t happen these days.

Diana sees the “ghost” of Anne Boleyn, a former wife of Henry VIII, who was beheaded in 1536. The old Spencer mansion—the house that Diana grew up in—was boarded up by order of the Queen, at least in part because “voices” had been heard in the house. There’s a wry mention of the royal family’s “holy sandwiches.”

Sexual Content

Diana shows her bare back to the camera twice in the film. Once she’s in the shower, her hands covering her breasts. (She turns a bit to the side as well.) The second time, she’s just wearing a pair of panties, covering her front with an evening dress she’s scheduled to wear that evening. She wears dresses and gowns that bare her shoulders and back. At one point, apparently out of spite, she tells a woman assigned to dress her that she wants her to leave. “I wish to masturbate.”

Diana apparently leaves her curtains open one evening while she dresses. Those open curtains become a constant source of friction between Diana and both the royal family and the wait staff. One evening, she finds those curtains have been sewn shut.

The Christmas court takes place after Diana’s fully aware of Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. She’s deeply hurt by her husband’s infidelity, and she’s appalled that Charles gave them identical pearl necklaces for Christmas. But Charles suspects Diana’s also cheating on him. They have a long discussion in the palace billiard room/library where Charles accuses her “delay” to the palace on a secret tryst; the phrase “delayed” becomes, for both of them, a euphamism for real or suspected affairs.

Later, Charles discusses how the responsibilities of royalty mean making your body do things you actually hate. He’s talking about William needing to participate in a pheasant shoot. But Diana may also take it as an insult—that he hated being intimate with her. We also hear about the apparent infidelities of an earlier English monarch and his wife.

[Spoiler Warning] Maggie, Diana’s dresser, confesses that she’s been wildly in love with Diana for some time. “Just think of all the time I’ve seen you naked,” she jokes.

Violent Content

Diana contemplates hurling herself down a flight of stairs. She clips her arm with a pair of wire cutters, then frantically tries to staunch and cover up the blood. (Someone later says to her, “They say you’ve been cutting yourself again.”)

Pheasants serve as something of a metaphor, sometimes for Diana and sometimes perhaps for the royal family itself. They are, we’re told, beautiful creatures bred simply to be hunted. “If it wasn’t for the gun,” someone tells Diana, “they wouldn’t be here.” Those that aren’t hunted down are, more often than not, run over. We see the corpse of a pheasant on the roadway, nearly getting mashed by the vehicles rolling by.

We see a formal pheasant hunt and hear plenty of guns. And while audiences don’t see any actual pheasants hurt during the hunt, Diana wonders what is done with those that are killed. She’s told that most are eaten, with the remainders being thrown away.

Someone tells a rather descriptive story of when a soldier got hit in the head with a bullet. We hear a few times about how Anne Boleyn was beheaded. Diana finds—and reads—a book about the executed queen in her room, apparently as a reminder of what can happen to rebellious royal wives. We hear a reference to insects having their legs, wings and heads pulled off.

Crude or Profane Language

Characters—mainly Diana herself—say the f-word about a half-dozen times, apparently solely to draw the film’s R-rating. Other than that, we only hear two other profanities in total (one use each of “b–ch” and “h—,”) and one misuse of God’s name.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Wine is served with dinner.

Other Negative Elements

Diana is bulimic. After dinner (which seems mixed with a fantasy sequence where she swallows the pearls from her necklace), she runs to the bathroom (her pearl necklace again secured around her throat), sticks two fingers into her mouth and upchucks dinner. At another meal, Charles asks her to do the creatures that made the repast possible—the cows who made the milk, the bees who made the honey, etc.—a courtesy and not “regurgitate it” into a toilet.

Certainly, the relationship between Diana and the rest of the royal family seems incredibly dysfunctional. Royals (and staff members loyal to them) consider Diana rebellious and perhaps insane. Diana believes that the family and its mountain of exacting rules buries any sort of life or love. The movie certainly sympathizes with Diana, but both sides could’ve done better.


Spencer is, on one level, a ghost story. Diana is haunted by the past: The hallucinated spirit of Anne Boleyn visits her often here, and she grouses that she’s breathing in the dusty remains of Queen Victoria herself. But more especially, she’s haunted by her past. She rescues her father’s old coat from a scarecrow; obsesses about her childhood home; longs to return to those simpler, lovelier days of her youth, where she was surrounded by love and warmth and freedom. She feels as though she’s losing herself to Britain’s most demanding family. Lunch by lunch, photo op by photo op, she’s vanishing … becoming a ghost herself.

It’s interesting that Spencer would focus so heavily on Diana’s idyllic childhood, given that the real Diana described it as far from idyllic. Her parents divorced when she was 7, she was subject to a strange custody battle and described her stepmother as a “bully.” “It was a very unhappy childhood,” Diana is quoted as saying in Diana: Her True Story—in Her Own Words. “Parents were busy sorting themselves out. Always seeing our mum crying. Daddy never spoke to us about it. We could never ask questions. Too many changes over nannies, very unstable, the whole thing.”

Clearly, Spencer isn’t after historical fidelity. Rather, it describes itself as a “fable from a true tragedy,” interested in polishing Diana’s gleaming image—and perhaps earning its star, Kristen Stewart, a gleaming statue of her own come Oscar time.

The movie itself, though, is a bit melodramatic for my taste, perhaps a little too enamored with its title character and a little too concerned with its own strange flights of fancy. Spencer, while showing Diana to be a sweet mother, endows her otherwise with little more than the morality found in a teenage romcom—shooting past the virtues of love and freedom and on to the more dubious values of passion and rebellion.

On top of that, the makers seemed determined to shoehorn in a couple of skin-baring scenes and enough f-words to garner an R rating—disappointing, given the rest of Spencer’s constraint.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.