The sad saga of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, seems destined to be told from numerous lenses: At the moment, you can choose from a television version (“The Crown,” from Season 3 on Netflix), a Broadway musical (“Diana,” opening to, ahem, mixed reviews), and now “Spencer,” a film directed by Pablo Larrain (who previously examined another thoroughly scrutinized woman in “Jackie”). Introducing itself as “a fable from a true tragedy,” “Spencer” isn’t a biopic, but instead takes place over a desperately uncomfortable three-day Christmas holiday at the Queen’s Sandringham estate, late in Diana’s ill-fated marriage to Prince Charles. Meals are served, gowns are donned, traditions are followed and a young woman slowly fades away.
What’s most interesting about this impeccably elegant film is not its story — surely even those deeply interested in Diana’s life have pondered every possible angle by now — but its central performance. Kristen Stewart is far from an obvious match for Diana, being an American who is neither tall nor blue-eyed, but her casting turns out to be strangely inspired. Stewart — and it shouldn’t be necessary to say at this point that she’s a far better and more nuanced actor than the “Twilight” movies ever hinted at — is uncannily good at conveying nervous, clenched anxiety. Here she creates a woman who’s practically a shadow of herself. This Diana, a pale wraith who clutches at her children like she needs them to keep her tethered, is a bird in a luxurious trap; we see the eating disorders, the mental illness, the misery. In one scene, guards find her wandering the grounds at night. “Just say you saw a ghost,” she tells them; it’s barely a lie.
Stewart lets us see how a pearl necklace (a gift from Charles, who gave the same thing to his mistress) feels like a weight around Diana’s neck; how she seems to be slowly sealed off from the world, step by step; how a chilly castle can’t be made warm with extra blankets. You watch wishing this story, in the real world, could have had a different ending; and marveling at how Stewart finds new, close-to-the-bone layers in a character we thought we already knew.