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In Spencer, Kristen Stewart shines as Princess Diana in the midst of the breakdown of her marriage to Prince Charles

“The only reason to make a movie about someone is to capture a spirit,” Kristen Stewart told The Hollywood Reporter. (Supplied: Roadshow)

From scowling her way through the rise of proto-riot grrrl Joan Jett to trying on politically radical film star Jean Seberg, Kristen Stewart has been making a habit of reanimating pop culture iconoclasts by refracting them through her own twitchy, mutable diffidence.

It's a performance mode that she adapts to her latest rebel girl, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, an even more beloved historical figure pitted against a caricature of tradition – at least according to Spencer, a speculative portrait that captures its distressed subject on a fateful weekend that would catalyse the collapse of her marriage.

With its blend of paranoid chamber drama and moments of full-tilt horror-movie psychosis, Spencer marks a fruitful collaboration between Stewart and Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who essayed a public icon with far less success in the Jacqueline Kennedy biopic Jackie (2016), but who has recently unleashed some of his most incendiary work in Ema (2019) – another film in which a wayward blonde took a torch to tradition.

"There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” Princess Diana told the BBC in 1995.  (Supplied: Roadshow/Frédéric Batier)

His portrait of the People's Princess is an occasionally overripe abstraction, designed to flatter the public perception of the one 'likeable' Royal in a historically repugnant – or at least extremely uncool – clan, imagining Diana as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a little lost girl driven to collapse by a cold, indifferent family.

As the pre-film title card suggests, Spencer is very much intended as "A fable from a true tragedy."

It's Christmas 1991, and Diana has arrived late to the extended family gathering at Sandringham Estate amid a string of gloomy omens: dead birds upended on the highway, a scarecrow draped in her late father's battered old jacket, and a creepy new equerry, Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), who insists on the Princess taking part in the traditional pre-holiday dinner weighing like he's fattening her up for slaughter.

"Where the f*** am I?" Diana wonders as she pulls over to the side of the road in her Porsche convertible, while composer Jonny Greenwood (who is having an absolute MVP run between this and his recent work on The Power of the Dog) goads the film toward dread with his jazzy, anxiety-ridden score.

In Spencer, the British royal family may as well be a cult; a world in which a woman can't dress herself or do her own hair, and emotions are kept to a minimum – if they're not repressed entirely. As Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) says to Diana, in one of the film's rare shows of empathy for its ostensible villains, "You have to be able to make your body do things you hate … for the good of the country, the people."

The way Larraín and French director of photography Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) sketch Sandringham (played here by Germany's Nordkirchen Castle), with their corridor-prowling Steadicam and aerial shots that render the grounds as a maze, seems to deliberately evoke The Shining's Overlook Hotel – a comparison made doubly explicit when Spall's chilly, tuxedoed caretaker confronts Diana in a cold storage room.

Larraín told Deadline he saw his own mother in the story of Princess Diana as well as links to his 2016 Jackie Kennedy biopic. (Supplied: Roadshow)

It's an effectively sinister vibe, reimagining the honeyed glow of Christmas as the sickly amber of a royal tar pit, where everyone is trapped by duty, and obsessed with keeping gossip about Prince Charles and Diana's marriage – and his infidelity with Camilla Parker Bowles – under lock and key.

Only little Princes William and Harry (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry, both great) are afforded much in the way of warmth or humanity; along with a sympathetic royal dresser, the bowl-cut Maggie (Sally Hawkins), who looks like she stepped straight out of a feminist bookshop circa 1982 – one of costume designer Jacqueline Durran's (Little Women; Peterloo) many chef's-kiss looks on display.

The other royals are little more than wallpaper, shadowy wraiths that haunt the frame both figuratively and literally, as when the ghost of Anne Boleyn materialises in Diana's chamber like some horror-movie bogey-woman – a choice that will register as a sustained eye-roll for some, but which plays right into the movie's side-trade in foggy, Hammer Horror spectacle.

Stewart is a fan of The Crown and is fascinated by the royal family. She was only seven years old when Princess Diana died. (Supplied: Roadshow)

As all of that suggests, Spencer is pitched at such a heightened tenor that its heroine already seems halfway to crazy before the story has even started, so it's a testament to the slippery game that Stewart, Larraín, and Greenwood play – spinning their subject's psychosis on all the axes at their disposal – that they steer their Diana toward something approaching emotional clarity.

How much an audience goes with Spencer may depend on their willingness to accept the film's more abstract elements; to accept it less as historical fact than as an experiment in speculative empathy.

Steven Knight's (Locke; TV's Peaky Blinders) script has more metaphors than a country music ballad, variously framing Diana as a wild horse who can't be tamed or a beautiful pheasant bred for the hunt; it sometimes feels like its protagonist is merely a mouthpiece for thematic swings against royalty and tradition. (A running bit about "closing the curtains" absolutely crosses over into rewarding high camp, though.)

Stewart worked on her British accent for four months while reading as much as she could about Princess Diana. (Supplied: Roadshow)

Larraín's direction, too, can be strangely mannered and drift toward arthouse cliche – twirling camera work that sometimes feels like a parody commercial for a high-end clothing emporium – unlike his more radical tendencies in Ema (it's all you can do not to wish Diana had her own flamethrower to set the whole estate ablaze).

Yet while Stewart's performance is more or less one note, drilling down into the melancholy the film imagines to be Diana's primary mode, she makes it thrilling – variations on the same riff that become hypnotic for their details.

The actor's particular mannerisms conjure a version of Diana refracted, as all biopics to some extent must be, through her own, modern sensibilities: hunched shoulders, head tilted just so, her clipped rhythms and breathy tone suggesting a creature gasping for air.

"There is no future here," she tells her kids in one scene. "Past and present are the same thing."

The scene where Princess Diana, Prince William and Prince Harry play Truth or Dare was largely improvised.   (Supplied: Roadshow)

Despite its real-world bona fides, Spencer is less concerned with realism than a kind of paranoid nightmare, an imagining of an interior life that – like Larraín's misfiring Jackie – takes a middlebrow biopic screenplay and dresses it up with eccentric art-film flourish.

What might have been a by-the-numbers mental collapse in lesser hands becomes something stranger, more abstract.

How else to explain a film that risks reducing Diana to a one-dimensional cartoon, dragging Stewart's performance across the same emotional terrain? In one of the film's most facile sequences, she's seen sobbing over childhood artefacts; while in others, Stewart, who at 31 still has the insouciance of a teenage boy, seems less like a mother to her on-screen sons than their peer.

Was Diana yearning for freedom or merely incapable of adult responsibility, of performing the family's professional duties – and does the film, in treating her like a captured princess, infantilise the historical figure?

These questions linger, but the film's potency is otherwise hard to diminish: if nothing else, it's an extremely moving portrait of motherhood and survival in a ghastly, antiquated world – one that questions those who would pledge themselves to crown or country.

“Diana was such a wonderful person that we felt her light refracted all over our set,” Stewart told Deadline. (Supplied: Roadshow)

Sure, Diana might be a lot cooler here than she was in real life – at one point she wears a dirty parka over a princess dress and hiking boots, like some 90s alt-rock girl – but the film's designs are clear: reclaiming the former royal as the real People's Princess, complete with a taste for fast food, fast cars, and cheesy anthemic pop.

Spencer is in cinemas from January 20.

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