A title card reads, “A fable from a true tragedy”. From that moment, the unfolding drama of Spencer relies on our own preconceptions of Princess Diana and the Royal Family.

For many viewers the perspectives will undoubtedly be informed by The Crown or The Queen, while others may have a more sensational outlook indebted to tabloid magazines and headline news. The ‘real’ Diana is somebody different to each of us, but what we do know is that her life within the Royal Family was difficult.

Spencer chronicles the Royal Christmas of 1991 and takes place over three days at Sandringham Castle, where they spend a weekend of recreation and leisure (that is to say, a royal definition of the two). Diana is late to arrive and is unhappy to be there at all. She is reluctant to participate in family traditions and refuses to conform to the routines and rules of the holiday.

Consequently, the film is a bleak, psychological character study that ventures further down the royal rabbit hole than the average moviegoer might expect; those expecting a drama in the vein of The Crown are in for a shock, and will instead find themselves confronted with a surrealist narrative closer aligned to Uncut Gems.

Spencer depicts Princess Di in a strange light, with all of her personal demons summoned for a weekend of inner-turmoil. There is no happiness within her and with each passing hour she spirals further into psychosis, balancing on the edge of sanity. It’s a side of Diana that hasn’t been dramatised until now, and with real figures from her life having praised the depiction, we can only assume it’s an honest assessment.

It was a risk for director Pablo Larraín (Jackie) to cast an American as one of England’s most beloved figures, but his gamble pays off. Kristen Stewart is revelation as Diana, delivering the performance of her career that’s sure to attract accolades when the Oscars roll around. She practically embodies Diana and seems so embedded inside the character that her Hollywood status is forgotten entirely.

The supporting cast is also excellent, although almost inconsequential against such an incredible central performance. Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins play the Queen’s Equerry (assistant) and Diana’s dresser, respectively, and offer guidance to the princess as she struggles to survive the weekend.

With a jarring free-jazz score by Johnny Greenwood adding further depth to Diana’s spiral, it’s admittedly difficult to gauge how Larraín wants us to perceive his story. If his intention was to elicit sympathy for Princess Di, then maybe he was misguided, for she comes across as almost adolescent and unreasonable in her disobedience.

History shows that Prince Charles was being unfaithful during this moment in time, and yet without any subtext, it’s on the viewer to contextualise Diana’s behaviour. And in depicting the Royal Family, within the confines of this film they seem entirely reasonable and patient with the insubordination and lack of respect shown by a brattish princess. At no time do they reprimand her, nor do they have her removed, and considering that they are spending only three days together, it is Diana waging war against herself and no one else.

Almost avant-garde in nature, the film should not be taken as fact. With that opening disclaimer of being a fable in mind, there’s a lot to absorb and relish while viewing. It’s only as good as its lead performance, which in turn makes it quite an exceptional film, and whatever oddities lie within, they should be taken as allegory and metaphor.

Spencer is a mesmerising moviegoing experience that’s nightmarish in tone, and even ventures into the realm of absurdity. The cumulative effect is strange, eclectic and wonderful all at once, and entirely rewarding.

In cinemas: January 20, 2022
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins
Directed by: Pablo Larraín