Entertainment

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.

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To find out Spencer session times near you, head to hoyts.com.au.

In the opening shot of Spencer, a series of armoured 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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.

Entertainment

Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.

Victoria

Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.

Queensland

BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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