Before there was Diana Spencer Mountbatten-Windsor, there was Grace Kelly Grimaldi. Both were very pretty, loved the world over and died far too young as the result of tragic car accidents.
Nicole Kidman plays the actress-turned-princess in this fairy tale telling (not a biopic, says director Olivier Dahan) of that time when the whole world held its collective breath as France threatened to annex the tiny principality of Monaco over its status as a tax haven. I’m kidding, of course. Unless you were a wealthy Frenchman or woman back in 1962, you probably didn’t even know about this. So, is this the best story screenwriter Arash Amel (ERASED) could come up with? Mais, attendez, mes chers amis. It gets worse, unfortunately. The Grimaldis are a fiercely private bunch and we really know very little of what Princess Grace’s life was like in the palace. As a result, all we really have with GRACE OF MONACO is a lot of conjecture.
Here’s what we do know: Grace Kelly was a young and hugely successful American actress. In five short years, she made 11 films in Hollywood, winning the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar® in 1955 for THE COUNTRY GIRL. She is perhaps best known, though, for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s now classic film, REAR WINDOW. She met Prince Rainier III of Monaco while attending the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. Although she was dating French actor, Jean-Pierre Aumont (LILI) at the time, Grace and Rainier struck up a private correspondence. They married the following year in what the media at the time dubbed “the Wedding of the Century”. She was just 26.
In 1962, when GRACE OF MONACO is set, Princess Grace already had two children with Rainier – Caroline and Albert. (Stephanie was born in 1965.) Hitchcock had offered her the lead in his new film, MARNIE, which she initially accepted. However, the people of Monaco felt that the princess’ acting past should be left in the past and public sentiment turned against her. Grace decided to turn the Hitchcock down and stay in Monaco. Around the same time, French president Charles de Gaulle began threatening to put a blockade around the principality because his country’s rich were moving their money to Monaco to avoid paying taxes. Rainier was trying to diversify his city-state’s economy which, at the time, was heavily reliant upon gambling revenues.
If we are to believe the version of events à la GRACE OF MONACO, the princess was terribly unhappy in those early years. Her outspokenness on political issues was unappreciated by Rainier (Tim Roth) and his inner circle, which consisted of, among others, the Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis. She was like a fish out of water, resented, too, by Monaco’s elite women who viewed her as decidedly middle class. Her only friend in the principality was the sagacious American chaplain for the Palace of Monaco, Father Francis (“Tuck”) Tucker (Frank Langella). He convinced Grace that being a princess was just like one of the many roles she had had in Hollywood. They agreed that, with a bit of coaching, she could become the princess that Rainier and the rest of the Monegasques wanted. So, Grace engaged the services of Monaco’s own Henry Higgins, the vivacious Count Fernando d’Aillieres (Derek Jacobi). (We don’t know from the film but I believe d’Aillieres was Rainier’s father).
Barely one week later, the new-and-improved Grace was ready for her debut. She convinced Rainier to invite de Gaulle to a charity event she was organising for the Red Cross. With de Gaulle in attendance at the black tie dinner, Grace looked the model elegant princess and she delivered a heartfelt “kumbaya-let’s-hold-hands-and-love-each-other” speech. What could de Gaulle do but concede defeat? The princess single-handedly saved the monarchy! Vive la maison Grimaldi! Now let’s eat.
Not surprisingly, GRACE OF MONACO was snubbed by the princess’ children, who called the film a complete fiction. I wasn’t there, of course, so I don’t know what really happened in Monaco in 1962 but I found this story to be completely ridiculous, not to mention insulting to Grace’s memory. Dahan (who also directed LA VIE EN ROSE) responded to the royal press release saying, “I have done… a human portrait of a modern woman who wants to reconcile her family, her husband, her career”. Wow. And she did all in a week!
But that’s only part of the problem with the film. The story is about as exciting as a fallen soufflé. To be honest, who really cares, other than the Monegasques and the super-rich, what happens in Monaco? Tax reform in a tiny corner of the planet doesn’t seem very important at any time but considering the Cuban missile crisis took place only a year before, this little bit of financial business belongs way down on the list of events that shook the world. As a result, it is extremely hard to get emotionally invested in the story. The acting, too, doesn’t help. For the first half of the film, we see Kidman as Grace in close up after close up, looking like she’s spent the better part of each day having a good cry. After her one week crash course in princessing, Grace is a whole new woman, smiling and confident, charming everyone from Monaco’s elite to the French border gendarmes. Ah, if only the key to inner fulfillment was really that simple. Roth as Rainier was no better. He had one emotion throughout the film – “serious”. Rainier was a man who had a colourful history yet we are given no evidence of that in the film. (His mother was the illegitimate child of his grandfather’s mistress. Before Grace came along, Rainier lived openly with a French film star. For the 1950s, this would have been scandalous except that Rainier’s sister, Princess Antoinette, had already had three children out of wedlock with a tennis star-turned-attorney. Rainier and his girlfriend apparently separated when it was thought that she was infertile. As it turned out, she wasn’t and she had a child with another actor a few years later.) Was he faithful to Grace during those years? We don’t know.
The film was also booed at by audiences at the Cannes Film Festival back in May. I wish I had been there for that! As someone who has programmed a film festival for many years, I completely understand the Cannes organisers’ decision to include it in their festival. However, they must have realised what a bad film they had on their hands. The scene where Grace pantomimes different regal emotions was a complete forehead smacker. The idea that Grace, the actress supreme, could fool all the people all the time with just an inventory of different looks is simply beyond belief. I had heard that the Cannes audience broke into incredulous laughter at various points during the screening. This must have been one of those points.
GRACE OF MONACO is royal rubbish. Do yourself a favour and give it a huge miss. Better yet, watch the real Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW instead.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 33:20.)