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Priscilla ★★★



Director: Sofia Coppola

Cast: Jacob Elordi, Cailee Spaeny

Released: 26th December 2023 (UK Cinemas)

Read Rehna’s Priscilla In-Person Feature

The opening shots of Priscilla’s bare feet gliding through the rich shag pile carpets of Graceland to the Ramones ‘Baby, I Love You’ is a goosebumps start to a film which, unfortunately, never entirely takes off. A movie about Priscilla Presley is like a standalone Catwoman film in the Batman multiverse – sure, she makes sense about the caped crusader (in this case, Elvis), but can she carry a whole production on her own?

Unfortunately, after watching Sofia Coppola’s new film Priscilla, the answer is a king-sized no. This Priscilla Presley origin story is a disappointingly slow, almost drab look at the life of a young girl who, in 1959, won the jackpot, as far as millions of women were concerned when she met Elvis Presley and eight years later went on to win the Las Vegas sized marital top prize of a wedding ring from the man every girl wanted. Everything about the film seems low-key, low-budget and low-lit as if it’s afraid to make too much noise or be noticed. As if it is determined to be the anti-Luhrmann.

After the excessive, brash, frenetic razzmatazz of Baz’s showman, the film appears to offer the antidote: the contemplative, reflective feature about the underbelly of the show. Except Priscilla isn’t contemplative enough. It’s a collection of scenes about a young girl and later a young woman who is much smaller than the big, powerful, rich, world-famous man she hungers for. Much is made of the vast disparity in height between the two leads, Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny. Look, a tiny girl lost in a big man’s world. Look, a little girl on a tight leash in a rich man’s huge compound while he goes out to do whatever he pleases. Look, a small girl, always creeping around, taking up as little space as possible while the big, powerful man fills the room with his personality, fame and ever-present male entourage.

The imagery of the power imbalance is strong, the message is clear, and the shots are clever and sometimes visually pleasing. But it’s often style over substance. Priscilla doesn’t provide room for emotional engagement until the final scene. At least Baz gave us emotion and moments to feel his characters’ grief, sadness, rapture, betrayal and joy amidst the spectacle. Priscilla presents a montage of scenes and images designed to convey a story without delving too deep into that story or putting it in any context. It’s like viewing lives through glass, which is a barrier to any real insight into why any character behaves as they do. The accompanying dialogue is serviceable but unmemorable and skims the surface of what is left unsaid.

Perhaps the primary problem lies in the story itself, or, at least, the one Priscilla Presley is willing to tell, and this adds constraints to the film Coppola could ultimately make. It’s not quite a biopic. It’s about the life of one relationship and leaves out critical elements of Priscilla’s tale, for example, her affair with the married karate instructor Elvis hired for her. The instructor is shown briefly but in the innocent setting of a group lunch. To show more would have dismantled the narrative of Priscilla the rest of the film had carefully built. It would also have made the ending less affecting.

It’s not quite a love story. The real Priscilla has often told of the enduring love between herself and Elvis, but what the film shows (very well) is Priscilla’s teenage infatuation with the heady idea of being Elvis Presley’s girl and curiosity and need for emotional connection on the part of Elvis, but little more. The relationship is not shown to grow in any meaningful way. That may be mainly due to the lack of chemistry between Elordi and Spaeny, but it makes investing harder in the couple.

It’s not quite a cautionary tale or dark fairytale, as some have dubbed it. Even though Priscilla is depicted as a sort of lost princess trapped in a claustrophobic Graceland castle, endlessly waiting for her Prince to return, at this point, she is not married to him; she knows he had other romantic and sexual interests and no suggestion she was being kept against her will. If anything, her parents questioned why she didn’t move on from him. Similarly, Elvis does not want Priscilla to have a career that indicates the time rather than a particular personal villainy. It’s not quite a character study. Priscilla, as a person, is no more evident at the end of the film than she is at the beginning. The real Priscilla, in interviews, does not present herself as a victim. The movie Priscilla is shown as one.

For a film by the director who made Marie Antoinette, the costumes are disappointingly cheap looking, and even Priscilla’s famously huge ‘60s beehive is staidly low. The sets give the film an air of a regional production of a big West End hit. It also doesn’t help that any of the actors look, sound or move like the people they are playing. The supporting actors are little more than human props. This helps heighten the loneliness of Priscilla when Elvis is away making films or touring (and being ‘romantically linked’ with glamorous Hollywood starlets in the showbiz magazines Priscilla avidly read). Still, again, it makes for silent imagery rather than compelling drama.

What does work, though, is the on-point soundtrack. It’s musically a scorcher but subtly, deftly tells the story the visuals and dialogue don’t. Coppola is known for choosing anachronistic but perfectly suited music for her films, and this collection is one of her best. While Elordi doesn’t look like Elvis, he captures the soulful, southern boy and the young superstar’s polite charm that beguiled so many. 

As Priscilla, Spaeny (25) is so convincing as a 14-year-old, you wonder if another actress will have to play the older version. But she effortlessly glides into maturity, and her adult Priscilla is as believable. Her movements are slow, delicate, and deliberate. There is no doubt this is her story, and she will tell it at HER pace. Coppola respectfully matches her, moving the camera and direction with equal restraint, observing, never judging and producing a film that is as light and subtle as the unspoken word. 

Unfortunately for this viewer, that lightness and subtlety were at the expense of what could have been a more compelling watch.

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