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Dial M for Murmur

David Koskas/Lucky Red

Grace of Monaco (2014)

Future scholars mapping the course of the celebrity biopic as the genre headed for the rocks will immerse themselves in "Diana," "Rush," "The Fifth Estate" and "Grace of Monaco," and be forced to concede — before they pass out — that the one with Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly bucked the trend — just not in ways that made the slightest difference. Olivier Dahan's film limits itself to a brief window of Kelly's time as fairy-tale princess, sparing audiences from the dreaded template of rise and fall; and it puts its subject in a functioning historical context, rather than just fetishizing her inner pain. It even features a performance you can't look away from, although that happens to be Tim Roth's portrayal of Prince Rainier as a monarch chafing under the weight of history, who might at any moment stab Charles de Gaulle with a fish knife.

It also includes some performances best watched from behind your seat. Mr. Dahan allowed Marion Cotillard to run riot in "La Vie en rose" with spectacular results, but his instincts for pantomime are a mixed blessing when let loose on the House of Grimaldi. Although Ms. Kidman has poise to burn, her director adopts a policy of extreme and unflattering close-ups from a low angle; her Grace seems graceless, murmuring truth to power in ways that just aren't very interesting to watch. Parker Posey — never remotely uninteresting to watch — has a fine time playing a buttoned-up, overstarched maid of honor in a permanent bad mood. She's a Disney villain, none the less out-caricatured at a stroll by Derek Jacobi as a protocol expert with some local wildlife on top of his head, who imparts to Grace the deathless wisdom that being a royal princess is much like playing a part — as if this were news to any princess ever, much less one equipped to spot that fact from an ocean away. The second half of the film plays biopic bingo at championship level; someone announces the arrival of Robert McNamara, allowing the mad crackpot to stroll on and make a joke about bombing places.

Most biopics are too deferential by far, so "Grace of Monaco's" drastic overplaying of its hand could be considered an attempted antidote. But the patient is already beyond conventional help. A culture both inured to celebrity pain and addicted to it on a 24/7 basis is unlikely to have any use for fictionalized depictions of famous people's lives; what can be added, if all the aspects of character that a biopic would investigate have already been dissolved out by the acid of the times and posted online, alongside the emotional innards of the performers playing them? The possibility that only documentaries or wilder forms of non-narrative fiction can now get the job done remains this reviewer's theory of choice, bravely published nowhere but here. Bizarrely, the last 60 seconds of "Grace of Monaco" glances in the right direction, via a weirdly ambiguous sequence of cuts from earlier in the story and the most spontaneously surprising physical move Grace Kelly makes in the whole film. One minute left open to interpretation out of 103 is a poor ratio, but still better than "Diana," "Rush" or "The Fifth Estate" managed.


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