Olivier Dahan’s Grace of Monaco opens with a big fat asterisk: “The following is a fictional account inspired by real events.” Many biopics take liberties with their subjects’ lives, but beyond Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco and the Prince’s later stalemate with President Charles de Gaulle of France over the colony’s status as a tax haven for big business, the majority of Monaco is a hokey fiction that imagines that the beloved actress may have been key to fending off French forces as a solution to her concurrent personal, professional and political crises.
It’s 1962, and Grace (Nicole Kidman) is ill at ease with her new duties as European royalty. The locals don’t care for her philanthropic efforts, her husband (Tim Roth) doesn’t want her to return to Hollywood despite Alfred Hitchcock’s offer to star in Marnie, and the French government’s efforts to tax Monaco residents in order to afford an ongoing war in Algeria threaten the small country’s stability. On top of that, a traitor in their midst appears to be leaking private matters to the public. What’s a princess to do?
The aforementioned disclaimer is followed by a quote by Kelly herself: “The image of my life as a fairy tale is itself a fairy tale.”
Soon, that f-word gets thrown around with reckless abandon in a film that believes it’s exposing a royal lifestyle for the real burden that it is when Dahan and writer Arash Amel are merely swapping out a fairy tale for a soap opera of nominal import, not to mention a half-hearted tale of espionage and an ultimately iffy take on girl power. The result isn’t a terribly great biopic, but with its soft-focus sheen, laughably portentous score and often hoary dialogue (“Colonialism is so last century.” “I’ll send Monaco back to the Dark Ages!”), at least it’s more enjoyably florid than the featherweight hagiography of My Week with Marilyn or the self-important slog that was Dahan’s own La Vie en Rose.
Save for interchangeable scenes of stuffy men in shadowy rooms arguing back and forth, much of the film falls on Grace being told what she can and cannot do, with her champions (namely Frank Langella’s sage priest and Derek Jacobi’s effete count) reiterating that being a princess is itself the role of a lifetime while dissenters remind her to know her place. Behind closed doors, Kidman’s performance skews closer to Sirkian melodrama, with Dahan’s camera closing in tightly on her crying eyes at the cost of anyone and anything else in frame. In the public spotlight, the leading lady is less a dead ringer for Kelly than an echo of herself, all smiles and autographs and flashbulbs as she appeals to the masses. (Roth, on the other hand, is mostly tasked with stoically exhaling a mouthful of cigarette smoke with each line.)
Once our heroine takes to the stage, she delivers a climactic speech meant to rally international goodwill in the guise of a glitzy evening, a monologue which admits the corniness of believing that “love conquers all” without necessarily refuting it. This Grace seems to think that well-applied glamour can save the world; alas, Olivier Dahan’s Grace makes a poor case for the same.
The Upside: No shortage of lush Mediterranean scenery and gorgeous costumes.
The Downside: Much glossy hand-wringing over embellished history; a hilarious left-field assist from young American diplomat Robert McNamara; a tacky allusion to Kelly’s eventual death in a mountainside car crash.
On the Side: The Weinstein Company, who will release the film Stateside later this year, reportedly fought Dahan over a “lighter” cut of the film that focused more on Grace Kelly’s celebrity status.