Any film that features as its subject one of Hollywood’s most iconic actresses, was always going to face an uphill struggle. Add to this that the woman in question later became a member of one of Europe’s oldest and most revered royal families, and it would appear that the odds were stacked against it. With this in mind it’s perhaps surprising that Grace of Monaco, the new drama from French director Olivier Dahan, featuring Nicole Kidman as arguably one of the world’s most famous actresses, even got past its first read-through.
The film follows the story of Grace Kelly and the effect two major incidents had on her life and that of the people of Monaco, during the early years of her marriage to its ruler Prince Rainier; her desire to return to acting and in particular to star in a film for the director Alfred Hitchcock, and a potentially devastating disagreement between Rainier and France’s President De Gaulle over the sovereignty and taxation of the tiny principality.
Biographical dramas based on contemporary historical figures are always going to face a number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In the modern age of mass media, the face, mannerisms and characteristics of anyone famous for longer than Andy Warhol’s allotted ‘fifteen minutes’, are indelibly etched on the public’s memory. If the person in question turns out to be a film star or member of royalty, the problem is magnified tenfold. The images of these people are caught forever on celluloid or in print, resulting in the public feeling that they know them personally through over familiarity with their likeness. Occasionally the unenviable task of portraying this person on film is achieved with aplomb as with Helen Mirren’s majestic embodiment of Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006). More often however the portrayal is met with the derision which Naomi Watts faced in director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s less than regal Diana (2013).
In Grace of Monaco, Kidman falls somewhere between the two. Though undoubtedly similar in appearance to the icy beauty of the American actress loved by millions of movie fans for her parts in Hitchcock’s classics Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, she nonetheless lacks the air of assured self-confidence Kelly exudes in pictures and archive footage of her once she had married her prince.
Grace of Monaco‘s other problem, again inevitably faced by films based on apparent ‘true stories’, is how much of it can you really believe? It is known that Kelly wanted to return to acting in Hollywood, and that Hitchcock would happily have had her star in more films. Prince Rainier’s differences with France’s President de Gaulle over taxation which came to a head in 1962 and which form the film’s main story arch, also have their basis in fact. The twos strands however are intertwined here in such a way that they lead to an unfortunately over-sentimentalised ending.
If this film is to be believed Grace Kelly’s private life – like that of Princess Diana, with whom she became close friends – was far removed from the fairytale her adoring public thought it to be; in the end one of cinema’s most feted actresses simply swapped the gilded cage of Hollywood for that of a small area on the French Riviera.