A Ghostly Sight: The Never-Ending Gaze of ‘Spencer’


My mother once told me that, as a woman, it’s my job to be strong. To hold in the tears and the fears, for it’s my duty to be solid, supportive of men who cannot contain their emotions, who need the catharsis that only a strange mixture of rage and sorrow requires. As a woman who feels too much, holding back tears or laughter or screams is an exercise in self-control. If Pablo Larraín’s Jackie represents the walls we build in an effort to not be deemed crazy, Spencer represents the moment the walls fall, that instant when we’re asked if we’re fine — when the tears that have blurred our vision for so long are finally blinked down onto our cheeks. But everyone’s watching you; they can see those tears building, and though some may look on with pity, others feel shame. When eyes are everywhere and ears are held close to thin walls, do you let the tears fall and become currency, or do you run and let them make up their fairy tales?

Spencer opens not with our titular star, but with the prison she’s soon to arrive in: a royal palace far away from the kingdom’s subjects, where tradition rules over family. Soldiers secure the area and make their exit as the chefs enter, the death march of the army contrasted with the life-giving properties of the Christmas feast that’s about to be prepared. This feast, however delicious it sounds, will be one of the many downfalls of our Princess, who we finally see driving alone while she twists and turns a map. This is a place she lived in her youth, yet she loses her way. When she enters a pub to ask for directions, it’s clear that eyes will follow her everywhere she goes; the patrons look on and gasp as our weary Diana (Kristen Stewart) puts on her most polite smile, but her presence is too much to handle as they stare, slack-jawed. 

Head chef Darren (Sean Harris) finds Diana just barely out of reach of the mansion, begging her to come up with any excuse for her lateness. While Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) ponders Diana’s apparent lateness as other guests arrive early, the Princess runs to a scarecrow from her youth, removing her father’s jacket from the rusted figure. This battered, dusty jacket is the ghost of Spencer that haunts her, pulling her back to her roots and away from the royal family she’s now belonged to for over a decade. This won’t be the only ghost to stalk her, for Diana sees specters everywhere, the royals and the help joined by Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), her husband’s mistress Camilla Parker Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith), and her own past. In this world, Diana tells her children, there is no future, and the past and the present are the same thing, one singular temporal moment where everyone that’s ever existed can see her every move. From this moment on, even the camera rarely leaves her side, its gaze, and, by association, the audience’s, Diana’s ultimate spectator.

I’ve never been formally diagnosed with it, but the endless feeling of eyes following me has plagued me for as long as I can remember. When people laugh in public, I attach their laughter to myself, sinister snickers derived from my mere existence. I watch eyes as if they’re a puzzle to solve through miniscule movements and unmet stares. When they roll, my heart sinks; when they won’t watch me, I feel so profoundly alone, the screen they stare at far more influential than my presence. I am never home alone — if there are no human family members in my home, there’s always a pet or two with those large orbs ready to absorb every embarrassing movement I make. As I write this, I sit in my living room, decorated for Christmas, with my mother, afraid that she can read my screen despite the fact that she’s seated opposite me. 

There’s a profound guilt that comes with being watched. There’s also the knowledge that by being watched, you must in turn watch others, ever vigilant of your movements and moods. I must be strong, cold, distant. If I choose to let the chips grow into cracks, I will be on the receiving end of empathy I think is disguised as pity. There’s no way to hide, though, once you’ve reached your boiling point.

Diana and the old servant had an agreement that she would not be weighed. “I’m half jewelry,” she jokes while Major Gregory insists she gain three pounds per royal tradition. She caves, sitting on the scale then rejoicing as she’s joined by her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). Before entering the theater for Spencer, I thought I knew what I needed to know about Diana: the heartbreak, the affair, the divorce, the death-by-paparazzi. I did not know, however, that the people’s Princess was bulimic, spending her days binging and purging for any semblance of control. Unaware of this, I found myself bracing for impact in the theater, praying I wouldn’t be able to see myself within someone so benign at her lowest moment. The second time, I let the tears flow.

Before eating (and likely regurgitating) the “holy sandwiches,” Diana runs to the bathroom, the utterance of her weight a trigger for her. Despite her attempts to hide her habits with running water, thorough cleaning of her index and middle fingers and the consumption of calorie-free mints, her behavior is already becoming currency amongst these ghosts. As she runs out, she reunites with Maggie (Sally Hawkins), her dresser and only friend in this sea of eavesdropping eyes and ears. Maggie is the only person that can talk Diana down, the only one who can listen to her decry her weight and convince her to be stronger than this family. Maggie’s ear is empathetic, and once the family understands this, it’s sliced off and replaced by the ear of a dresser who intrudes and spies on Diana. 

We see Diana eat in a self-harm induced haze. She guzzles pea soup in an imaginary scenario where she rips her gifted pearl necklace, the same necklace husband Charles (Jack Farthing) has already given to his mistress and lets the pearls drop in the soup, crunching them as she glares at Charles. This dream, in which the ghost of Anne Boleyn watches her just as the Queen and Charles do, complicates Diana’s paranoia, as she longs to be seen and heard with real, honest compassion. If just one person can see that she eats to hurt herself, that she sees this soup as a weapon meant to destroy her, maybe help will be within her reach. Instead, royal politeness rules, and she drags herself to the bathroom to purge yet again. Seeing her bulimia on screen, I clenched at Diana’s constant purging; my form of purging is fasting, abstaining from food for as long as I can and using it as a tantalizing reward for completing work or chores. But the true reflection came in the kitchen, in the middle of the night, as Diana is caught by Major Gregory just as the clock strikes midnight and he can wish her a “happy Christmas.”

Diana enters the walk-in freezer to an assortment of culinary delights: cakes, sandwiches, and fruits lining the icy shelves. I sat in the theater with a group of friends, my entire body clenched as a rush of memories flooded back to me. She moves in silence, eating strawberries and taking bites from a drumstick with relief, not delight, her body finally being nurtured. I see myself rushing to the bathroom with dessert, eating in silence and praying I avoided my family’s watchful eyes. I remember all the times I covered my tracks, using paper towels and napkins to cover food wrappers of treats I would be reprimanded for eating. I think of the late nights where I was so hungry after a day of avoiding food to feel “skinny.” I think of the nights in my dorm this semester where hunger won; I think of the nights in my old home where food won. The second time I watched Spencer, I was in the middle of starving myself alone in my dorm, and my body had to release all the pain and sorrow in a burst of tears as I watched Diana bite down on poultry and cake.

When Major Gregory catches Diana, she hides the food behind her back and snaps, demanding to know who he really is and why he refuses to leave her alone. His job is to watch, he tells her, and that means he has to keep his eyes glued to every person that enters the vicinity. If it’s not the staff watching Diana, it’s the family, if it’s not the family, it’s the paparazzi, and if it’s not the paparazzi, it’s the audience. After they exchange pleasantries, the major exits and Diana continues to eat; after one bite, though, she’s lost her appetite. 

Diana hates her body, and maybe we all do, but it’s not easy to love your body when thinness is the principal beauty standard you hold yourself to. Diana is already thin, yet the thought of gaining weight plagues her. She fears her dresses will be too tight, apprehensive to wear any of the designated outfits for the holiday. In the shower, she hunches with her back facing the audience — in fact, we the audience never see the front of Diana while she’s naked, as if the one wall she will never let down is covering her stomach. I am someone with a visible stomach who does whatever she can to hide it. As Diana hugs a dress close to her, I think of all the clothes I fear will never fit, or, God forbid, show the world I have a stomach. I wear high-waisted pants so that my fat never hangs out; I pull my belt too tight, punishing myself for having a bump where most have a desirable flatness; I suck in and hold my breath and cry when I have to breathe again; I envision taking a knife to myself and cutting off the fatness, my organs spilling out the same way those pearls drop into the pea soup. Diana and I are leagues apart, but we see ourselves in the same way, and we refuse to let others see this vision.

Diana’s ultimate failure is in her inability to hide her true self. The help notice that she’s “cracking up,” and Darren notes that they never laugh at her predicament, for their pity is far too strong. After the kitchen incident, Diana plays a game with her children, only for William to ask what happened to make her so sad, to which she avoids the question. “Don’t know what you mean, sir,” she says, knowing absolutely what he means as her eyes shine with the glimmer of tears. Maggie, and later Charles, insist that she must become two people, smile and look pretty on the outside while she withers away on the inside. To hide, though, is impossible. The watchful eyes, the flashing cameras, and the specters that surround her have created an anxiety that eats away at her. However, she still wants to be seen, given the kind of grace that tabloids and a resentful family deny her.

In her only scene with her husband, Diana and Charles argue about two separate problems. Charles, in-tune with the servants’ concerns for Diana, and Diana, in full denial of her issues, stand on opposite sides of a billiards table, both playing a losing game. Diana reprimands him for training William for the Boxing Day tradition of shooting pheasants; Charles demands to know why she refuses to close her curtains. Diana insists William is too young to use a gun; Charles insists Diana is losing her mind and that she must be more careful about what she lets the public see of her breakdown. She must get used to doing what she hates, he demands, just as the rest of the royals do. At this moment, Diana realizes that she is what Charles hates, slamming her hands down on the table. The thought of Diana’s breakdown going public is too damaging for both of them, Charles fearing what the press might think, and Diana fearing the treatment she would receive from the family. Instead, Charles refers to her as a spoiled child, and Diana fails to hide her deep fury and sadness.

Major Gregory tells her that her curtains must be shut, as paparazzi have been spotted and Diana was changing with the curtains open. Later, for her refusal to follow orders, the curtains have been sewn shut, infuriating a Diana that wants some semblance of normalcy. In her white gown, she takes the wire cutters, previously requested so she can cut through the barbed wire blocking the old Spencer home, and cuts open the curtains. In a moment that caused my entire theater to gasp, Diana stands in the center of the window and uses the tool to cut herself, putting her self-harm on full display for whoever dares to watch her. Often, I find myself wondering if my own admittance of suicidal thoughts or bad habits is for attention; however, through Diana, I can see that attention is exactly what I often need, for anyone to see the pain and come to my aid.

Avoiding dessert, which Darren and the other chefs make especially for her in an effort to ensure she eats anything at all over the holiday, Diana takes a flashlight, sneakers, and jacket along with her gown and wire cutters to the Spencer family home. A dark, desolate place, this home is falling apart and covered in dust — a true haunted house. It’s in this home that Diana is finally able to burst into tears. She remembers her happy childhood, longing for a standard, middle-class life where she felt truly loved. Just as she is about to throw herself off the stairs, Anne Boleyn’s ghost returns, and all the moments of emotional freedom flood back to Diana in a furious montage of dancing in empty halls donning beautiful gowns. These memories overlap and reveal that even in these happy moments, her depression is beginning to taint her thoughts, as frowns and tears are fought back on her wedding day or as she lets loose in a giant red gown, free from everyone’s sight. In the end, she does not leap off the stairs, hoping that those moments she enjoyed free from the world’s eyes can be replicated.

“Fuck the doctors, what you need is love,” Maggie tells Diana on the beach, the two reuniting on Boxing Day. On the beach, Maggie relays her concerns, but Diana knows now that, in fact, she does have some secrets she’s kept hidden from the world. Maggie confesses her love, much to Diana’s shock, and the princess’s giggle is enough to prove to Maggie that compassion can save this woman’s life. They frolic on the beach, and for the first time in the film, Diana feels a love that won’t be cut short by traditions or spies. 

People ebb and flow in my life. Friends I thought I would know for a lifetime are gone in the blink of an eye, time tearing us apart and leaving us to fend for ourselves. I often find myself lost in thought, wondering what any of these people would think of me now — more often, though, I wonder if I would collapse into their arms again. People I told my darkest secrets to, who have seen me break down as my apathetic and cold exterior shatters, what would they think of me now? Would their love be enough to save me? I think about how often new loved ones enter my life, and how their love has kept me alive, just knowing that I can confide in these people the secrets I have never told my family, and I will be met with love. Really, we all want that, and Diana is no exception.

In her final act at the royal home, she vaguely threatens to “join the pheasants,” birds admired for their beauty but bemoaned for their lack of intelligence, much like Diana herself. As the men fire, Diana walks across the field, journeying to take her kids away from these violent festivities — though it can be easy to imagine that this is another suicide attempt as if she thinks that, if she can’t have her children, she can at least join the pheasants in the afterlife. But her children run to her, and they rush away, hand in hand, joined together by pure love. They drive back to London, and, in a moment of true freedom, order KFC in the drive-thru, the worker unable to recognize Diana’s voice and allowing her to claim the order under the name Spencer.

Between my never-empty home, college dorms, and countless classrooms, I have never been truly alone. Privacy is the ultimate myth; I may not be currency, but I can always feel the gaze of others. They know all my mental illnesses, all my struggles, all my heartache. My face is instantly readable, and my apathy is always a lie. I gained a reputation in high school for hating everything, a defense mechanism meant to hide just how deeply I feel every mundane emotion. There is hope for Diana, though, in the vast city of London where anonymity reigns. The time will come for a sensitive person like me where I can be weak without shame or fear. I do not believe, as my mother does, that my job as a woman is to hide my feelings. As a human, I believe it is all of our duties to feel and to be loved for it. Spencer is about escaping those that sneer at your feelings, leaving behind the hateful thoughts that fill your subconscious, and embracing not just the tears, but the love that rebuilds you, one piece at a time.