Rainiers And Grands Prix Always Make Me Sigh
2014 has, so far, proved to be a pretty good year cinematically, with genuinely great films of all kinds never seeming that far away: the first few months alone have seen the release of Under the Skin, The Raid 2, The Winter Soldier, and 12 Years A Slave (hey, I didn't like it much, but as usual I'm in the minority). So it is only right and proper that the balance be somewhat restored by the unleashing upon the world of a complete dog.
So, then, to Olivier Dahan and his Grace of Monaco, another stab at the ever-popular celebrity biography movie. Or possibly the recent-history true-life drama genre. The family of some of those depicted in this film have kicked up a bit of a fuss about it, however, which is presumably why it opens with a caption carefully making it clear that this film, though based on historical events, is a work of fiction. A statement of artistic intent, or just an attempt to avez le cake et mangez it aussi? You decide, mes braves.
Anyhoo, things get underway with the retirement of Oscar-winning actress Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) and her marriage to Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), ruler of the principality of Monaco. Five years on, Grace receives a visitation from Alfred Hitchcock, who wants her to come out of retirement and appear in Marnie opposite Sean Connery. Grace has been finding palace life a bit oppressive and is tempted, but there are wider concerns: Monaco's status as a tax haven is rubbing their French neighbours up the wrong way and an international incident looms, with a blockade and potential invasion on the cards...
What follows is a multi-stranded narrative, with all the stories focussing on the Princess to some extent: there's the wider, political crisis, with the attempt to persuade de Gaulle to back down and allow Monaco its independence, and then there's some stuff about court intrigue in the House of Grimaldi and a possible traitor amongst Grace's staff. Finally, there is the most personal story, about Grace struggling to reconcile her celebrity past and natural free spiritedness with the demands of her royal role. There's a lot going on here, and Dahan does an impressive job of keeping it all balanced: all the elements are equally banal and exasperating.
It's not just that this is a film which basically requires you to care about the fate of an ancient Mediterranean tax haven. Nor is it the not terribly subtle way in which the film is coded: it's about a young blonde woman from a relatively humble background who marries into a royal family and finds it an oppressive experience - it may be Princess Grace's name on the script, but we know whose story they're really interested in. The real problems with Grace of Monaco arise from its clumping, banal script, peculiar casting and performances, and bizarre directorial choices.
There's no life or sense of surprise to any of it, really: the dialogue is stilted and obvious. This film features a large number of very fine actors, everyone from Frank Langella to Derek Jacobi, and none of them makes very much impression. They are either stereotypes or completely inert. Tim Roth plays Rainier rather like a harassed bank manager – his Latin nature indicated primarily by the fact that he possesses a very thin moustache and always has a tab on the go.
And as for the direction... well, Dahan's most obvious little trick at moments of key emotional importance is to park his camera about three inches away from Nicole Kidman's face, so close that you can't actually see it all at once. From here it wanders around as the situation demands – is she expressing emotion through her eye? Up goes the camera to take a look. Is she about to deliver some dialogue? The camera jerks down to cover her mouth, just in case. This gets very wearisome very quickly. Thankfully, he restrains himself during the climax of the film, which is essentially a speech from Kidman which goes on for what feels like ages, delivered practically straight down the camera lens. Even so, this just leaves us with a string of platitudes containing no real force or insight.
At least the cinematography is quite nice. I might even venture to say that Grace of Monaco is pretty and looks quite expensive, but is really much smaller and less interesting than it first appears – and that as such it really has quite a lot in common with Monaco itself. Whatever. Grace of Monaco is a movie which takes a relatively obscure period of recent history, uses it as the basis of a story, and in the process makes you realise how dry and tedious these events actually were. Definitely a unique movie, but definitely not in a good way.