The text "A fable from a true tragedy" is the very first message that Spencer has for us, and this tells us the most important thing we need to know about it. Namely, this is not a biopic of Diana, Princess of Wales, but an impressionistic psychodrama based on the material of her largely unhappy and short life. Specifically, it covers three days: the 24th, 25th, and 26th of December, presumably in 1991, the last Christmas before Diana and her husband Charles, Prince of Wales, announced their separation. The story more or less consists of some events both real and hallucinatory that might have gone into her committing to that decision, though it is much likelier that they did not, in the specific form presented here. "An impressionistic psychodrama" is pretty much exactly what one would expect of this: director Pablo Larraín's only previously English language film, 2016's Jackie, is also an impressionistic psychodrama about just a few days in the love of a woman known internationally because of her marriage to a a man who was an enormously significant figure in his country's government, but whose own fortitude and kind soul made her renowned in her own right for her friendly personality and peerless fashion sense, making her the warm human face of a cold, monolithic institution. The big difference being that Jackie is about the externalisation of private torment, while Spencer is about the innermost turmoil of a woman's mind, so personal that we can never be absolutely sure how much of what we're watching is actually happening and how much of it is purely her subjective impression of it; that her marriage's collapse had national significance and global interest is barely even acknowledged by the movie except as one complication out of many. But both do the same great work of making an iconic real-world figure into a movie character, telling a story of a well-etched individual person who feels crushed into oblivion by the sheer force of history all around her.

So those were the first words in the film, anyway; the first words spoken in the film by Diana herself, in the sharp, brittle tones of American actor Kristen Stewart, are "The fuck am I?" And while context makes it clear that the full question, phrased grammatically, would be "Where the fuck am I?", it is surely no accident in Steven Knight's screenplay that it could just as easily be understood as "Who the fuck am I?" As is telegraphed right by the title, the film's arc is to explore how Diana comes to reclaim her maiden name "Spencer", to shed her put-upon identity as part of the inhumane machinery of tradition, ritual, and decorum collectively known as the British Royal Family. Those bookending lines perfectly define a laser-focused character study: outside of some early scenes showing the kitchens at the Queen's estate at Sandringham House preparing for the royal retinue to arrive, every scene includes Diana, and is told strictly from her point of view, and the film's story is entirely about the process by which she finds the mental clarity to say the titular proper noun at an unexpected crucial moment most of the way to the end.

Another key piece of text, coming in between the title card and Diana's first line: "Keep noise to a minimum. They can hear you." That appears as a cautionary reminder on the wall of the kitchen, firmly reminding the staff that Sandringham House is an old place without much privacy. Variations on "they can hear you" keep popping up throughout Spencer, as more and less friendly faces (borne by such actors as Sally Hawkins, Sean Harris, and an unnervingly gaunt Timothy Spall) remind Diana that she's not allowed to have a messy mental breakdown in peace, without it coming to the attention of the taciturn Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet). And this gets to the tone of Spencer, which is not at all the stately, handsome business of well-heeled Oscarbait, no matter how the film has inevitably been promoted. This is a film of intense, nonstop paranoia, driven by everything from the script to the camera movement, but above all by two things. One of these is Stewart's world-class performance: it has now been seven years since Clouds of Sils Maria made it impossible for anybody who was paying attention to keep pretending that Stewart wasn't a gifted, thoughtful performer, and Spencer is the point at which I think that's impossible even for people who aren't paying attention. It's a skittish, uncomfortable performance, right from the first time she opens her mouth: I'm not the one to make claims about whether or not Stewart's English accent lands or not, but it sure sounds painful, and this is absolutely in the film's best interests. Everything she says, especially in the more desperate first half, is delivered in a strangled bark, the inarticulate coughing of a woman who has completely run out of coping mechanisms and for whom it is literally beyond her capacity just to pretend to be happy to be trapped in the countryside with her hated in-laws, even for a minute. It feels like Stewart has to tear the words right out of her body, as though she's afraid that every syllable might be the one that finally breaks whatever force of will is allowing her to keep everything together.

The other big thing is Johnny Greenwood's score, a new high point in what is quickly turning into one of the most exciting careers for any film composer. His extremely counter-intuitive Spencer score is made up mostly of free jazz, individual notes played by isolated instruments darting out across the sound mix like scared rabbits. At times it snaps into focus and creates a clear, patterned melody, sometimes for not very long at all, but those moments of focus are frequently terrifying, chaos resolving into an oppressive order. It's jarring, atonal, and it doesn't let up, giving the whole film a feeling of itchy, visceral uncertainty and disarray. And that is the perfect sonic foundation to a film dedicated above all to using every element of craft to evoke Diana's trapped panic.

This isn't to slight the rest of the film's aesthetic, of course, which is frequently brilliant: Claire Mathon's cinematography is particularly splendid, continuing to solidify my belief that she's one of my new favorites, in the wake of her one-two punch of 2019 materpieces, Atlantics and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I don't think this is quite as good as those two, but it's brave, difficult work, especially because it's not at all afraid to go really ugly when that will help: the exteriors tend towards unpleasant watery colors and overexposed lighitng, giving everything the washed-out, thin feeling of a cold December day when it's not quite wintry out yet, but the air feels kind of stripped bare of life and the sky looks desiccated. The interiors are a bit more conventional looking, but the contrast between their stuffy, dusky yellowness and the piercing whiteness of the exteriors gives the film a tremendous amount of visual energy. And then there are the other expected strengths: terrific costumes by Jacqueline Durran, re-enacting Diana's life as a fashion plate while making her outfits feel like both prisons and shields of armor; production design by Guy Hendrix Dias and set decoration by Yesim Zolan that makes Sandringham feel both rich and miserably cluttered.

Spencer's weak link, sad to say, is the writing, which is never afraid to be as obvious as possible. There are a lot of lines of dialogue where people say exactly what's on their mind - a baffling choice for a film so much about the terror of wondering what people know and aren't telling you  - but the real trouble comes in the obvious symbolism. I don't dislike Diana's visions of the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), one woman whose happiness was sacrificed to the unfaithfulness of a shitty royal husband serving as the warning and grim reminder to another; it's a little hokey, but the fact that Stewart plays it to make clear that Diana herself thinks that it's hokey does manage to save it. But there are a lot of places where the film seems indecently eager to elbow us in the ribs, asking if we "get it"; worst of these is a moment where Diana listens to a story about an unruly horse that couldn't be tamed, and blithely responds with "Well, I hope that it never was tamed," or something equally dumbfounding in how little respect it has for us decoding the world's most obvious metaphor even after the film has already done everything in its power to present it to us on a very large platter. I don't expect that objection to survive a re-watch, or even just letting the film simmer in my brain for a little while, but there's no denying that Spencer is a very tediously written film. Everything else is working so well that it more than compensates, but that's still enough to put it a firm half-step behind Jackie. Still, this is such a vigorous, exciting, aesthetically dense, and psychologically aggressive riff on the usual Oscarbait biopic that I'd very happily call it one of the most stimulating films I've seen in 2021, and if Larraín wants to keep hanging out in this territory for a while yet, that would be just absolutely great by me.