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Kristen Stewart gives the performance of her career in Spencer. She certainly wasn't an obvious choice to play Princess Diana. For starters, the two don't look alike; Naomi Watts, who played her in 2013's Diana, was a lot closer. And then there's the fact that Stewart is American, meaning she has to adopt an accent. Director Pablo Larrain (Jackie) has not made a straight biopic, though. The film labels itself "a fable from a true tragedy." It's an impressionistic look at a tortured Diana during three days of her life. With that approach, Stewart is a surprisingly great fit.

The story is set over the Christmas holiday. Diana and Charles are technically married, although rumors of infidelity are making headlines. The royal family gathers together at the Queen's Sandringham Estate. Diana arrives late, and she's clearly in a poor mental state. Photographers are hounding her. She's got an eating disorder. The pressures of having to live every moment of her life according to the rules of royalty have stressed her out. In other words, she's done with this lifestyle, yet trapped within it.

Much of the film documents her unhappiness about the control exerted over her – control she believes has stripped her of her true personality. She literally isn't even allowed to dress herself. Timothy Spall plays Major Gregory, the Queen's equerry, who suspiciously tracks her every move. Head chef Darren (Sean Harris) is more sympathetic, advising Diana to be careful because anything she says or does will reverberate around the mansion. Her only true confidant is Maggie (Sally Hawkins), her preferred dresser. Charles eventually sends Maggie away, sensing that the bond between them could lead to his wife thinking for herself.

To a large degree, Spencer works because Stewart so convincingly captures the emotional anguish Diana is going through. The princess feels her world is crumbling, and because the actress playing her is so authentic, we feel it too. The key scene finds Diana spending time with her sons on Christmas Eve. They bring her true happiness, which is visibly evident. At the same time, Stewart still indicates the sorrow behind the smile. Diana is happy to be with her boys, but depressed that these simple, unguarded moments can't be more frequent. This is the genius of her performance. Rarely do we get such a nuanced look at a person struggling with inner pain.

A typical biography would have had to take on too much. Diana's life, short though it may have been, was rich and full. The decision by Larrain and writer Steven Knight to hone in on just a few days makes more sense. We've all heard the stories about Diana feeling stifled by life as a royal. Spencer is able to dig into that idea, showing us a woman yearning to break free, to simply be herself again. Without the need to do a strict impression, Stewart can fully immerse herself in depicting what the situation might have been like for the princess. The unpredictable approach additionally gives the film universality. Even though it's about one of the most famous individuals of the modern era, anyone who has felt confined or controlled will relate to Diana's struggle to reclaim her identity.

Larrain takes time to dramatize the rituals that the royals put themselves through. We see the attention to detail in the kitchen, the formalities in the dining room, the reserved manner in which people interact with one another, and so on. Doing that conveys the suffocating way of life Diana can no longer stand. Adding to the claustrophobic feel, cinematographer Claire Mathon shot the picture in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The sides of the frame are squeezed together a little more than normal, making the notion that Diana is boxed in register subliminally.

Spall, Harris, and Hawkins are all superb in supporting roles, as is Jack Farthing as Charles. The latter gets an especially potent scene in which Charles is confronted with his wife's fragility and basically tells her to suck it up and deal with it. This is Kristen Stewart's show, however. Her work as Diana is both layered and compassionate. Spencer studiously avoids traditional storytelling in favor of establishing a mood that allows us to observe the million little ways she is dying inside. By the end, the princess comes to an epiphany, leading to a hopeful conclusion.

We've become accustomed to thinking of Princess Diana as a tragic figure. Spencer honors her by reminding us of who she really was deep inside.

out of four

Spencer is rated R for some language. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.