Suggesting aspects of Stephen Frears' "The Queen" by way of Oliver Stone, French director Olivier Dahan's "Grace of Monaco" is a mannered, lightweight portrait of the actress' troubled days in the early '60s as she adjusted to life as the city-state's princess. However, despite its straightforward plot— actress attempts to resurrect career before embracing new role—"Grace of Monaco" hovers in a strange place in between fact and fiction. By exploring a narrow scenario from one chapter of Kelly's life, "Grace of Monaco" plays like fragments of an uncompleted biopic that's been art directed within an inch of its life.
Heirs to the Monaco throne have cried foul about the project's embellishments, but the opening title card explains that events have been fictionalized -- and is balanced by a quote from Kelly about seeing her life in fairy tale terms. Beginning with the actress receiving an offer from her old collaborator Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton Griffiths) to star in "Marnie" and the publicity mayhem that ensues when she considers taking it, "Grace of Monaco" gives way to shades of a political thriller when Kelly instead decides to help her stern husband, Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), cope with mounting showdown with France over tax laws. Crediting Kelly with a far more diplomatic role than history records, "Grace of Monaco" uses this twist to enhance the idea that Kelly found solace by turning her new life into her last great performance.
In other words, it's a comeback story—an intermittently compelling one that toys with history. Dahan has been down this route before with the Edith Piaf biopic "La Vie en Rose," which was similarly attuned to its leading woman's personal desperation amid a sea of public scrutiny. "Grace of Monaco" is at its best when it foregrounds Kelly's reactions to the forces surrounding her, from her husband's reservations about her career to the Monaco public's disdain. "Everything you say has consequences," Rainier tells her, sounding both passionately concerned and domineering, the ambiguous state he occupies for the duration of the movie.
Both soft and fierce in every scene, Nicole Kidman skillfully embodies the paradox of Kelly's public life. Roth is serviceable as a serious figure driven by his investment in Monaco's sovereignty, but like much of the cast, he's a one-note creation. When the camera pulls in close on her face, Kidman takes the movie into a sympathetic arena defined by the character's solitude. The rest of her world, a slick, colorful evocation of the era given the usual period drama flourishes by cinematographer Eric Gautier ("The Motorcycle Diaries") conveys the less credible existence surrounding the actress—as well as the considerably weaker movie.
While not as campy as the material might suggest, it's a mixed bag of thinly conceived theatrics. Kelly's relationship with Hitchcock has the half-baked air of a Lifetime movie. Arash Amel's script hums along in professional strategy sessions between Rainier and his colleagues, but is so enamored of its heroine that it goes to laughable extremes to delineate her heroic resolve. Frank Langella is admirably sage-like as the priest who offers guidance, while Derek Jacobi has the thankless task of portraying an aristocrat tasked with teaching her to play the royal part. In the scenes where he trains her to face the public, the movie takes an unfortunate page from "The King's Speech" and attempts to turn Kelly's quest into an athletic undertaking.
But the uneven aspects sometimes play in its favor. Small touches hint at the darker context of Kelly's life, including one tense sequence where the exasperated actress speeds down a twisting dirt road, foreshadowing her death in a car crash decades later.
"Grace of Monaco" never gets to that point. The contained drama is a snapshot of Kelly's discontent following a move away from the dozen acting credits that made her famous and won her an Oscar. Drawing more from "Sunset Boulevard" than "My Week With Marilyn," it emphasizes the pains of abandoning show business rather than coping with its excesses. Hovering in her uncertainty, the movie strikes a muted tone that virtually makes it a film noir, which may partly explain why The Weinstein Company wants a different cut for the U.S. release (the version screening at the Cannes Film Festival is Dahan's original cut). The mood has its intriguing qualities, but the narrative never finds enough substance to carry it to a satisfying finish.
Of course, an unfinished drama fits the bittersweet tale of Kelly's life. From "High Noon" to Hitchcock's "Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief," Kelly's cinematic talents combined class with individualism, a combination allotted to few other actresses at the time. For that reason alone, "Grace of Monaco" is in tune with the mythological dimensions of Kelly's career. "The world needs Grace Kelly back on the big screen," the fictionalized Hitch implores her. Despite its flaws, "Grace of Monaco" comes closer than the star herself in achieving that goal — and leaves us desiring so much more.
"Grace of Monaco" opens the Cannes Film Festival today. The Weinstein Company will release it later this year at an undetermined date.