Set in 1962, six years after her celebrated her wedding, Grace of Monaco tells of a year in the life of one of the twentieth century's most iconic women – Grace Kelly – as she strived to reconcile her past and her present, a yearning for a return to the big screen with her newfound role as a mother of two, monarch of a European principality and wife to Prince Ranier III. Screened at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

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A second-rate story of first-class first-world problems.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Movie star Grace Kelly met Rainier Louis Henri Maxence Bertrand Grimaldi, Prince of Monaco (‘Ray’) at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a no brainer then, that 60 years on, a film about the resulting marriage between Hollywood royalty and the crown-wearing kind, would open a new edition of the same event, just a few clicks down the coast road from the palace they once shared. What a wonderful storybook ending it would make, if only the film wasn’t dreadful.

Olivier Dahan’s lurid, unintentionally hilarious melodrama milks a fairy tale metaphor to explain how a glum, post-Hollywood Grace Kelly got her Princess mojo back and in the process, preserved her tiny principality’s status as a tax haven. Or something. 

Grace of Monaco starts with a carefully worded disclaimer that what follows will be “a fictional account inspired by real events”. The gesture will likely do little to appease the pissed-off Grimaldi kids (Albert, Caroline and Stephanie have collectively dismissed the film’s depiction of scenes from their parents’ marriage as “a farce”), but at the very least it manages audience expectations, to admit that the ensuing 102-minute sudsy romp intends to play fast and loose with the truth.

Kelly once observed that, “the idea of my life as a fairy tale is itself a fairy tale”. Dahan takes this sad reflection about marital compromise and runs with it, and misses Grace’s point entirely. He turns her frown upside down, and gives the rosy-cheeked princess in the pink castle a happy ending worthy of Disney.

Six years into her marriage, Princess Grace (Nicole Kidman) sets off a political firestorm by contemplating a return to acting. Alfred Hitchcock is wooing her for the lead in Marnie, and her desire to come out of retirement is alarming to the Palace gatekeepers. ‘Ray’ (Tim Roth) is in the midst of a stoush with Charles De Gaulle over Monaco’s refusal to pay taxes, and the optics of Her Serene Highness running back to Hollywood to resume her career at such a time is deemed unthinkable. 

The spectre of Hitchcock looms large over the film and Dahan is clearly attempting to emulate the portly auteur in presenting his film as a wannabe homage to Rebecca. This extends to Parker Posey’s depiction of Madge Tovey Faucon – Grace’s (Australian-born) lady in waiting. Here, she’s painted as a crafty conspirator, all-too-happy to show up Grace’s shortcomings, especially when Ray’s in earshot. In an early scene, she chastises Grace for picking up a piece of paper (“Maarm, you can’t bend down”). Clearly, in this Manderley, Madge is the Mrs Danvers, and Posey is an Actors’ Studio case study in frowny consternation, for the way she paints Madge as the villain of the piece.

But how’s Nicole? Actually, she’s pretty good, and the icy A-lister is well-cast as her mid-century predecessor even if, at 47, she’s nearly 20 years older than the woman she is portraying. But whatever, so was Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra, which premiered at Cannes last year, and in which the age of his teen character was crucial to the narrative. Kidman, with her pin-curled bob, bears a passing resemblance to Grace Kelly (though it must be said, the likeness is strongest in silhouette).

Dahan employs an annoying technique of shooting Nicole in extreme close up, roaming the contours of her face during her weepy cocktail hour confessionals with a confidante, expat priest, ‘Tuck’ (Frank Langella, playing pious with a straight face, even as he delivers breathy dispatches from the Vatican). Sure, the technique probes its princess’ intimate terrors but mostly I suspect it’s a trick to disguise the copious implementation of ADR in this heavily edited movie. Whatever misgivings Harvey Weinstein had about the final cut of Grace of Monaco, the proof is in the (Euro) pudding. He and Dahan reportedly clashed over the film’s tone, and it is clunky and contradictory throughout.

As the crisis with de Gaulle worsens, the film goes loopily off the rails by giving its princess a fairy godfather (Derek Jacobi). He realigns her priorities away from Hollywood and towards her royal responsibilities, and sets Grace on a very belated course of ‘Know your Principality 101’. Some long walks around the Monégasque headland form the backdrop for a picturesque pop quiz that is meant to demonstrate just how determined the good lady is/was to make an impression on her husband and his subjects… six years into her marriage!

Jacobi hams it up as a flamboyant aristocratic Henry Higgins type, Count Fernando D’Aillieres. He schools Grace on the ways of being a princess in a weird makeover montage that actually includes deportment and elocution lessons (!), and involves the use of pastel royal-fonted flash cards (!!) to marry princess-y emotions with their appropriate princess-y expressions (!!!). All this for, you know, Grace Kelly. The Oscar-winning actress who was born into actual High Society and then parodied that same High Society in, you know, the movie, High Society. The same Grace Kelly who also played a princess rather convincingly in the movie The Swan. As good an actress as Kidman is, she’s not the least bit convincing in this bizarre sequence, which in one final daft, cruel irony, teaches her how to express “regret”. It’s a fair bet that thanks to this diabolical disaster, Our Nic's got that particular emotion down pat. 

When Grace of Monaco was first announced, it met protestations of the “it’s just like Diana!” variety. It’s my unhappy duty to confirm that yes, this story of a sad princess portrayed by an Australian actor is indeed the latest in a sub-genre of diminishing returns. (Quick! Let’s nip this cultural cringe in the bud and limit our royal roles to queens played by Cate Blanchett and Guy Pearce in drag.) Mind you, the dialogue in Grace of Monaco is equally as cheesy as Diana’s was, but it’s much more fun to hear it delivered through impossibly snooty “Frahnch” accents.

All in all, it’s a perfectly coiffed shambles that deserves to live happily ever after as a cult camp classic.

 

Watch 'Grace of Monaco'

SBS World Movies, Tuesday April 21, 9.30pm. Watch Grace of Monaco anytime at SBS On Demand after broadcast.