The offscreen palace intrigue between “Grace of Monaco” director Olivier Dahan and his on-again off-again U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein turns out to be far livelier than anything on screen in Dahan’s cardboard and frequently cornball melodrama about Grace Kelly’s bumpy transition from Hollywood to actual princess — and her (seemingly single-handed) saving of her embattled sovereign state from French annexation. Handsomely produced but as dramatically inert as star Nicole Kidman’s frigid cheek muscles, Dahan’s strained bid to recapture the critical and commercial success of his smash Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en rose” is the sort of misbegotten venture no amount of clever re-editing could hope to improve. The decision to release the pic in France and other key Euro territories immediately following its opening-night Cannes berth reps a healthy gamble on Kidman’s drawing power against the summer blockbuster deluge.
Although Dahan and screenwriter Arash Amel open “Grace” with a quote by Kelly herself stating that “the idea of my life as a fairy tale is itself a fairy tale,” the movie that follows very much tries to have things both ways, with a script that feels cobbled together equally from “Cinderella,” “My Fair Lady” and “The King’s Speech,” culminating in — what else? — a lavish ball. In between, “Grace” offers a vision of the Philadelphia-born Oscar winner as not exactly an ugly duckling, but certainly a gauche American unschooled in the manners and mores of the European aristocracy, and very much an outsider in her own sovereign state, where she arrived in 1956 after marrying the Monegasque prince Rainier III (played here by Tim Roth).
When Dahan’s film picks up, in December 1961, it’s clear that, for Kelly, the royal life hasn’t turned out to be all she imagined. Then a lifeline to the outside world arrives in the form of her erstwhile “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief” director, Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton Griffiths, the first in a parade of ghoulishly overacted celebrity caricatures that also include Paz Vega as Maria Callas and Robert Lindsay as Aristotle Onassis). Hitch has come to offer her the role of the psychologically scarred kleptomaniac in “Marnie,” and much of “Grace of Monaco’s” first half concerns itself with Kelly’s desire to return to Hollywood, despite the open misgivings of her husband and the (not altogether inaccurate) intimations of the tabloid press that her marriage must be on the brink.
As it happens, something else is on the brink, too. Mired in the costly Algerian War and alarmed at the number of national business pulling up stakes and relocating to tax-free Monaco, French president Charles de Gaulle (Andre Penvern) delivers Rainier an ultimatum: Implement an income tax and pay the proceeds to France (upon whose imports the tiny nation depends for its survival) or else risk military action. Actually, what de Gaulle says, in a splendid example of the movie’s overripe dialogue, is “You agree to my terms or I’ll send Monaco back to the Dark Ages!” Yet, for all of the movie’s efforts to turn this long-forgotten turf war into a veritable Cote d’Azur Missile Crisis, it never registers as more than a trumped-up teacup tempest — one whose worst possible outcome is that a few thousand tax-dodging bourgeoises might be forced to become French citizens.
It’s enough, though, to send Grace into a positive tizzy. Fearing that heading to Hollywood might be viewed as a total abandonment of her sovereign duties, she seeks counsel from a sage expat American parish priest (Frank Langella, in Jiminy Cricket mode), who tells the conflicted actress that playing Princess Grace is in fact “the greatest role of your career” — an obvious sentiment that Dahan’s movie nonetheless turns into a kind of rhetorical mantra. And so Kelly resolves to double-down on princess duty, with some help from a kind of fairy godfather “protocol expert” (Derek Jacobi, slumming in style) who instructs her in the dos and don’ts of regal style. Can Grace’s imminent Red Cross charity ball prove the weapon of mass diplomacy even Rainier lacks in his arsenal? Just you wait, Charles de Gaulle! Just you wait!
If Princess Grace was the great role of Kelly’s career, the same can’t be said for Kidman, who would seem to be perfectly cast as the carefully vetted wife trapped in a loveless A-list marriage. But the actress never appears to fully connect with the character, delivering a series of doleful little-girl-lost poses — and, later, pantomimed iron-jawed determination — while decked out by Dahan and costume designer Gigi Lepage in a parade of suitably eye-popping wide-brimmed hats, gold-lame gowns and shimmering Cartier diamonds. So one comes away with a very good sense of how Grace Kelly looked, but precious little sense of how she felt, about her husband, her children (barely glimpsed here) or her adopted homeland.
Amel’s script is agonizingly airless and contrived, especially when it tries to shoehorn in a conspiratorial subplot involving Rainier’s sister Princess Antoinette (Geraldine Somerville) and a possibly duplicitous lady-in-waiting (Parker Posey, as tightly clenched as Mrs. Danvers herself). As in “La Vie en rose,” Dahan keeps things very busy on the visual front, even making sure to have literal fireworks erupting in the background of one marital argument, when one would have thought the emotional fireworks would have sufficed. “At some point, every fairy tale must end,” espouses the ever-wise Langella — only, in the case of “Grace of Monaco,” not nearly soon enough.