A ‘haunting’ biopic from Sofia Coppola

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Sofia Coppola’s “understated, non-judgemental portrait” of Elvis’s wife Priscilla Presley is “quietly affecting”, writes Nicholas Barber from the Venice Film Festival.

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A year on from Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic, here’s the same story again from the perspective of Elvis’s wife. Adapted from Priscilla Presley’s memoir, Elvis and Me, it’s written and directed by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette), a specialist in capturing the ennui of wealthy people in luxurious surroundings. Her approach could hardly be in starker contrast with Luhrmann’s. Priscilla is a subdued domestic drama, all soft lighting and soft voices, with no more than a glimpse of Elvis’s concerts or a note of his records – and, mercifully, no sign at all of Tom Hanks’s Colonel Tom Parker.

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Cailee Spaeny plays Priscilla Beaulieu, as she is known for the first half of the film. As Beaulieu’s stepfather is in the Air Force, she is living on a US base in Germany in 1959 when one of Elvis’s army buddies invites her to a party at his house. He (played by Jacob Elordi) is a 24-year-old superstar on military service, while she is a dimple-cheeked 14-year-old schoolgirl, but the film maintains that they had a long chaste courtship, and that Elvis simply wanted her company because he was homesick for the US and grieving for his recently deceased mother. Indeed, one of Priscilla’s main grievances later on is that, far from being a devilish seducer, Elvis preferred to keep things platonic between them for years after she is ready and willing to do the deed. The “intimacy co-ordinator” mentioned in the film’s end credits didn’t have a lot to do.

Opinions will vary as to whether Coppola should really have been so polite about this cancel-worthy affair, and Priscilla Presley’s status as the film’s executive producer may well have affected her judgement. But the unsteamy relationship is a fascinating departure from the usual cliché of a hedonistic celebrity with an innocent young girlfriend. Elvis gives Priscilla pills to stay awake and pills to fall asleep, but rather than throwing her into a debauched underworld of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, he invites her to live in his house in Memphis, Tennessee, where he expects her to carry on with her schooling, dress demurely, and join him for evenings out at the roller-skating rink. His career highs and lows are things she hears about on the phone and reads about in gossip magazines, but she is never invited to share in them.

As the years slip by, and the excellent Brie Larson-alike Spaeny grows convincingly from lovesick schoolgirl to strong wife and mother, the film becomes a haunting dark fairy tale about a beautiful princess trapped in a castle by a controlling king, but, again, Coppola is more understated than that might suggest. Graceland is shown to be a relatively modest, tasteful home, and Elvis’s various relatives and hangers-on are nothing if not friendly and welcoming. Elordi is twice as tall as Spaeny, thus fostering the uneasy feeling that he could hurt her at any moment, but the couple’s fights are small ones. Their tragedy is their lack of closeness of any kind. Elvis always comes across as a not-quite-human stranger, and if he ever talked to Priscilla for more than a few sentences at a time, you wouldn’t think so from the film.

Priscilla

Director: Sofia Coppola

Cast: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi

Run time: 1hr 50m

Some viewers will find Coppola’s restraint frustrating – I often have in the past. Instead of turning Priscilla’s life story into an excessive cautionary tale or an empowering feminist fable, she has sketched a cool, non-judgemental portrait of someone who is a passive observer of her own existence. Perhaps the film could have done with a little more conversation and a little more action, but it’s still a quietly affecting, sympathetic tribute to the kind of person who is a supporting character in most biopics. In its subtle way, it shows how things can be right in many ways but still just wrong enough to ensure that you are never relaxed. You can be in a comfortable household with a doting husband and a crowd of his friends, and still be lonesome tonight.

★★★★☆

Priscilla is released on 27 October in the US, and on 26 December in the UK.

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