'Grace of Monaco': Cannes Review
A stiff, stagey, thuddingly earnest affair that has generated far more drama offscreen than on.
CANNES – It must have sounded like a perfect match at the time. On paper, French director Olivier Dahan’s period drama about Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco was a great choice to open the 67th Cannes Film Festival, a glitzy gathering with a long tradition of mixing Eurotrash aristocracy with Hollywood royalty. Indeed, it was at this very festival that Kelly first met her future husband back in 1955.
But Grace of Monaco arrives in Cannes trailing months of bad publicity. The royal family in nearby Monaco have attacked Dahan's deluxe biopic for inaccuracies in its depiction of their late parents, cancelling their usual attendance at the festival. More damningly, the movie has been virtually disowned by its U.S. distributor The Weinstein Co., with Harvey Weinstein threatening not to release the current European edit.
Even before the Cannes critics got their teeth into it, the film's commercial prospects seemed decidedly shaky. Now, after tasting this stale wedding cake of pomp and privilege, it is hard to disagree with Weinstein's harsh verdict. Grace of Monaco opens across France today, with most of Europe, Australia and Taiwan to follow over the next three weeks.
In theory, it was a killer pitch. A sexually adventurous Hollywood screen queen with serious daddy issues marries a super-rich European prince and moves into his 235-room palace overlooking the Mediterranean. But their fairy-tale marriage is full of friction, amplified by dark family secrets and a possible war with the superpower next door. Meanwhile, a chorus of legends including Alfred Hitchcock, Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas hover in the background, pulling the "Serene Highness" in opposite directions.
It is even possible to make a boring film out of this rich, juicy, gossipy material? It would seem so. Indeed, it is almost perversely impressive how Dahan misses almost every target and squanders almost every opportunity. Because Grace of Monaco is a stiff, stagey, thuddingly earnest affair that has generated far more drama offscreen than on. Even with skilled heavyweights like Nicole Kidman and Frank Langella on board, writer-producer Arash Amel's groaningly literal script and Christopher Gunning's intrusively treacly score drown every nuance in soapy banality.
Dahan comes with a solid track record. His 2007 Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose won critical raves and a mountain of awards, including an Oscar for its star Marion Cotillard. At the box office, it became one of the highest-grossing French productions in decades. But while the Piaf film had emotional punch and stylistic verve, Grace of Monaco is relentlessly middlebrow mush. Even fans of glitzy Eurotrash royalty porn will be disappointed, as Dahan methodically avoids camp excess and salacious speculation in a misguided bid to whitewash Kelly as a self-sacrificing People’s Princess in the Lady Diana mold.
In fairness, Kidman is a good physical match for Kelly and brings an intensity that elevates even a shallow script with shades of emotional complexity. But Tim Roth never convinces as Rainier, chain-smoking through every scene with a pained frown suggesting mild constipation. Langella gets a few choice lines as Father Francis Tucker, the Catholic priest who serves as Kelly’s kindly confidante. But the background chorus of legendary figures, from Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) to Callas (Paz Vega) to Onassis (Robert Lindsay), are thinly drawn ciphers.
The current Monegasque royals may be wary of the film's take on Rainier and Kelly’s stormy marriage, but in truth it flatters and sanitizes their relationship. According to several biographers, both partners were serially unfaithful, with the prince maintaining at least three mistresses while his wife had numerous affairs, including liaisons with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. Dahan merely portrays the royal couple as sleeping in separate rooms, hinting at tensions without making them explicit, a timid decision that ultimately feels self-defeating. The real drama has been decaffeinated.
Grace of Monaco mostly takes place in 1962, a turbulent year in this ancient principality's history, when France was aggressively pushing to close cross-border loopholes that allowed French companies and citizens to dodge paying tax. In October, France set up customs blockades on border roads in a bid to ramp up pressure on the defiant Rainier. The film suggests that aging president Charles de Gaulle (Andre Penvern) was seeking an easy political payday after a bruising, costly defeat in Algeria’s war of independence.
Dahan inflates this minor historical skirmish into an existential power struggle for Monaco’s future, with double agents and palace traitors plotting a French-backed coup. This is fanciful fabrication, drawing on a real family feud that blew over before Kelly’s arrival. In this version of history, de Gaulle becomes a kind of tyrannical Doctor Evil figure, screaming threats down the phone to Rainier: “Agree to my terms or I’ll send Monaco back to the Dark Ages!" Preposterous nonsense.
Dahan also scatters Grace of Monaco with playful little homages to Hitchcock films, notably Rebecca and To Catch a Thief, but sadly they go nowhere. In a convoluted twist, the script tries to portray Kelly’s reluctant rejection of Hitch's offer to make her Hollywood comeback in Marnie as a crucial factor in saving Monaco from French invasion.
Ultimately, Kelly deploys her acting skills to charm de Gaulle himself with a rousing speech that paints plucky little Monaco as a magic kingdom standing up for truth, justice and beauty in a world of bullies. Given this tiny tax haven’s long history as a magnet for playboy gamblers, shady oligarchs and money launderers, this comically absurd climax comes perilously close to the “pussies, dicks and assholes” speech at the end of Team America: World Police.
Grace of Monaco opens with a Kelly quote: “The idea of my life as a fairy tale is itself a fairy tale.” But instead of the implied debunking of glittering fakery, Dahan's film merely replaces one simplistic, reverential facade with another. Indeed, the Shrek movies deconstruct fairy-tale conventions with much more depth and wit than this dreary parade of lifeless celebrity waxworks. The real problem here is not the shameless blurring of fact and fiction, but how unforgivably dull it all seems.
Production: Stone Angels, YRF Entertainment
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth, Frank Langella, Paz Vega, Derek Jacobi, Parker Posey, Geraldine Somerville, Robert Lindsay
Director: Olivier Dahan
Screenwriter: Arash Amel
Producers: Arash Amel, Uday Chopra, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
Cinematographer: Eric Gautier
Editor: Olivier Gajan
Production designer: Dan Weil
Art director: Daran Fulham
Music: Christopher Gunning
Sales company: Lotus Entertainment
Rated PG, 103 minutes