As someone who grew up adoring the over-the-top theatrics of Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Davis’ later works and the likes of Mommie Dearest, The Wiz, and Showgirls, I must say that I was rather looking forward to the universally-panned Grace of Monaco. A quick look on Rotten Tomatoes sees critics describing it as “frustratingly superficial” with “unintentional humour” and like the “cheesiest and most patronising of made-for-TV biopics.” As a self-proclaimed connoisseur of camp, this was all the endorsement that I needed. Whilst director Olivier Dahan seems to have disappointed every other critic with his glossy picture, I will fully confess to grinning from ear to ear with delight throughout this camp masterpiece.
Written by Arash Amel, Grace of Monaco follows Hollywood icon Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) who is torn between returning to the world of acting and supporting her husband Prince Rainier of Monaco (Tim Roth). Set during looming French invasion in the 1960s, Dahan captures Grace’s identity and marriages issues amidst this tense political climate.
Whilst many have criticised Dahan’s direction, it would be impossible to deny that he captures a sweeping, fairytale like beauty in the sun-stroked Monaco. With a palette of warm colours, cinematographer, Eric Gautier, captures the gorgeously decadent Prince’s Palace and the striking sea views from the country’s infamous winding roads. This visual awe paired with staggeringly gorgeous costume design from Gigi Lepage ensures that Grace of Monaco is a true feast for the eyes.
The combination of glamour and politics does not gel well. It’s a bit like when Dynasty would present stories about drilling rights and pipelines that no one really cared about – we all just wanted to see Joan Collins and Linda Evans slap each other whilst wearing ball gowns. Whilst politics does play a large part in the narrative – after all, it is politics that causes the tension in Rainier and Grace’s relationship – this is essentially a near-fictional story of Grace Kelly saving Monaco through her movie star glamour and delicate airs and graces.
With an emphasis on the superficial and Grace’s glamorous persona, Grace of Monaco is filmed with soap-opera style close-ups and packed with ham-fisted and unintentionally hilarious dialogue. There is admirably nothing understated about this overblown Hollywood fairytale. In Notes on Camp, critical theorist Susan Sontag notes that camp is ‘the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience’; this essentially captures the spirit of Grace of Monaco. This is a film that wants to be a serious drama, but is crushed under the weight of its overblown theatrics and glamour leaving us with undeniably campy results.
By the arrival of a scene-stealing Sir Derek Jacobi, Grace of Monaco joyously crashes into pantomime territory. With quiffed snow white hair and an array of pedigree puppies, the legendary thesp (in the role of Count Fernando D’Aillieres) takes Gracie through etiquette in a Princess school montage that looks like it was lifted from a shelved draft of The Princess Diaries 3. We see the Count hold up a variety of flashcards with facial expressions listed whilst Grace is expected to perform each. Here we see her tackle such complex feelings of anger and jealousy against a sweeping string soundtrack and extreme close-ups: the result is a scene of such overblown and superficial melodrama that it cements Grace of Monaco’s rightful place as a camp classic. Appearances from colourful characters such as Parker Posey’s sneaky assistant, Robert Lindsay’s badly-accented Aristotle Onassis (who will hopefully be reprising his role if Dahan ever makes a Jackie Kennedy biopic) and Milo Ventimiglia’s hunky PR guy, help assert Grace of Monaco’s theatrical tone even further.
There are moments of tenderness and vulnerability in Nicole Kidman’s truly underrated performance which lend Grace of Monaco a slight emotional depth. We do get a sense of Grace’s frustration and isolation as she attempts to help the people of Monaco, yet her attempts are squashed by middle men and a people who do not see her as a suitable princess. We feel for her as she longs to return the world of Hollywood where she was accepted by audiences and crews. We feel proud for her as she gains the acceptance of her people and defeats pantomime villain Charles DeGaulle with an impassioned speech (Yes, really).
Grace of Monaco is a sheer force of nature. Dahan has crafted an overblown, theatrical and superficial melodrama filled with sparkling glamour and a fairytale-like visual awe. Grace of Monaco is the first truly magnificent camp classic since Showgirls. I loved every minute of it.
(I’ll lose all my critical privileges if I give this five stars, no matter how much I want to).