How 'Spencer' Weaponizes Pea Soup for a Royal Panic Attack
Kristen Stewart, director Pablo Larraín, and screenwriter Steven Knight break down how food is "weaponized" in their Princess Diana fable.
In the opening shot of Spencer, a series of armored trucks snake up the driveway of Sandringham Estate. Once they're parked, men in olive drab unload huge crates that look like they're full of military weaponry and carry them in through a side door. But they're cracked open to reveal massive lobsters, pristine fruit and vegetables, and other ingredients and delicacies that will adorn the royals' tables over the course of Christmas 1991. "It's sort of a weaponization of food," screenwriter Steven Knight explains.
Food is all over director Pablo Larraín's haunting "fable" about Princess Diana, played by Kristen Stewart, coming undone. The film opens in the kitchen. The head chef Darren (Sean Harris) reads off the menus like he's going into battle, describing the organic selections from Highgrove that are supplementing the mousses and gooses. Diana steals away into the refrigerator late at night where she binge eats cake and fruit and a chicken leg. And, in arguably the most crucial scene in the movie, the heroine has a vision over a bowl of pea soup garnished with crème fraîche and mint.
For as luxurious as the dining sounds, it's not. Instead, mealtime is a symbol of the oppressive traditions of the crown. As soon as Diana arrives she is weighed—a tradition stemming back to Victoria demands the royals gain three pounds at Christmas to show they enjoyed themselves—and ordered to go attend the sandwich service. She sarcastically calls them "the holy sandwiches." The food motifs are presented in stark contrast with a depiction of Diana's struggles with bulimia.
"She always said that her eating disorder was a symptom of a larger problem," Stewart says. "It wasn't the problem. That didn't come from her innately. This is how she was reacting to an environment that felt impossible to live in. And so to think that sandwiches are more important than your life—that's so fucking ridiculous. 'The holy sandwiches.' I had to hide so much snarl in that because I, as Kristen, am so upset by that. That's so infuriating."
The clash between the royals' eating habits and Diana's internal monologue comes to a head during the pea soup scene, a turning point in the film that takes the audience fully into Diana's perspective for the first time, where it will remain for the rest of the runtime. Diana enters the hall late for dinner as a string quartet plays Jonny Greenwood's discordant score. When she sits down, she enters a state of paralyzing fear. She shifts in her seat uncomfortably, panicking under the judgmental gazes of the Queen and Charles. Then, a vision takes hold. She sees the ghost of Anne Boleyn across from her. She starts to pull at the pearl necklace Charles gave her, a gift he also purchased for his lover Camilla Parker Bowles. She yanks and breaks the chain and the pearls plop into the soup. She spoons one, puts it in her mouth, and crunches it between her teeth.
"I was really interested in the white pearls and the green soup, and then when the pearls are in the soup, she's going to have to swallow it," Knight says. "It's to the point of: Are you able, like the rest of the members of the family, to just accept that everything will be the same over and over and over again?"
There were a number of practical challenges to constructing the scene, among them the fact that they had to recreate a necklace worth half a million dollars. The solution was creating pearls out of chocolate candies—not M&Ms, Stewart says, but close. Meanwhile, the hazy quality that comes through in cinematographer Claire Mathon's camerawork was enhanced by the fact that the room was quite literally filled with smoke.
"It's a scene we shot with no artificial lighting, and we have 300 candlelights," Larraín explains. "It also speaks about tradition. Those places are lit like that and there's a lot of smoke there. You can barely see seven or 10 feet ahead of you. It's very smoky, people don't talk much. They are very focused on eating. They all eat after the Queen. It's a protocol."
Stewart herself felt the pressure of the experience even in executing the choreography. The cameras were rolling for about a minute before she entered the room where the musicians were playing live, and the whole sequence took about three hours to complete, longer than anything else in the film. But the payoff was worth it.
"That scene could have been filmed in so many different ways," Stewart says. "It could have been a flash. It could have been just a little suggestion, like maybe I grab my necklace and think about putting it in my mouth and then drop it, then it's not there in the next scene. It could have been really subtle and this thing shrieked in a way that felt like an internal nightmare. And that's why movies are cool."
She continues: "When you take all these elements—the friction between image and sound and pacing and all these things—that to me is the only thing that really reflects what it's like to have certain experiences. If you're going to describe the worst dinner you ever had, you're going to say, 'I felt like my head was going to explode. I felt like I wanted to rip my fucking necklace off and eat it, and he wouldn't stop staring at me.' And none of it's true, but that's what it feels like. And so to have done a scene that was existing in this perceived reality that we exist in all the time, it just wouldn't be leaning into cinema in the way that Pablo does."
The moment the pearls drop into the soup, the reality of the royal rituals collides with the metaphors that Knight, Larraín, and Stewart are using. The menu is full of dishes that are supposed to be celebratory, but they are also an obligation that becomes untenable for Diana. To exist within the confines of this family, she must break her teeth on pearls.