- Directed by Sofia Coppola
- Written by Sofia Coppola, based on the book Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley and Sandra Harmon
- Starring Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi and Dagmara Dominczyk
- Classification 14A; 113 minutes
- Opens in theatres Nov. 3
Both the best and worst film to double-bill program alongside Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, Sofia Coppola’s new drama Priscilla aims to set the Graceland record straight with a sometimes dreamy but mostly harrowing tour inside the private details of a hugely public marriage.
When Coppola’s film opens, Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) is just a 14-year-old girl bored of life on a West German military base in 1956, where her stepfather is stationed. Soon, though, she’s spotted by a friend of Elvis Presley, and asked to attend a party in nearby Bad Nauheim, where the singer is renting a home during his military service. Chaperoned by a colleague of her stepfather’s, Priscilla approaches the charming but seemingly shy Elvis (Jacob Elordi) in a corner, and very soon her life is changed forever.
Building the pseudo-courtship up at a careful, steady pace – almost as cautious as the young Priscilla is in getting close to Elvis – Coppola finely draws the line between attraction and coercion, innocence and corruption, that defines one of the most famous “love” stories in pop culture.
From a yawning historical distance, the intentions of Elvis when it came to Priscilla could charitably be read as pure-hearted. Yet how could they possibly be seen today as anything but inexcusably predatory given the massive age gap between an adult superstar – truly, the most famous man on Earth at that point – and a child? “She’s so young,” the girlfriend of one of Elvis’s hangers-on whispers at one point. But Coppola is not interested in solely and repeatedly indicting Elvis, just as she’s not keen on making a gushy romance that covers up reality with the slick sheen of lip gloss. Priscilla the movie is as complicated and beguiling as Priscilla the woman.
In bringing this particular side of the Presley marriage to light, though, Coppola faces more challenges than the unco-operation of the musician’s estate (which explains the lack of any original Elvis music here; some covers and anachronistic tracks instead fill the soundtrack). Namely: the director is working with a production budget roughly the equivalent of what Baz Luhrmann spent on Tom Hanks’s many giant hats, a deficit of resources that cannot help but kneecap the rock-’n’-roll excesses that would have coloured Priscilla’s world that much more.
A half-careful viewer can see the corner-cutting seams of Priscilla’s quick 30-day shoot just about everywhere – the film’s copious number of interior scenes that seem to repurpose sets, an absence of live concert scenes featuring hordes of extras, and a Graceland mansion (actually an estate located just outside Toronto) smaller and less enchanting than the popular imagination might conjure.
Yet the filmmaker meets and rises above her financial challenges with visual wit and narrative verve at every opportunity. The relative smallness of this film’s Graceland, for instance, underlines the gilded-cage aspect of Priscilla’s early life – the character is, like Coppola’s version of Marie Antoinette, just another young girl trapped inside a castle that others might kill to be imprisoned by.
Coppola also scores two central casting coups whose worth is incalculable. As the rock legend, Elordi (best known for HBO’s Euphoria) is a towering head case of contradictions – the swooning lover and the detestable egoist. When he hurls a chair toward Priscilla, when he feeds her mystery pills, when he blatantly gaslights her regarding his Hollywood affairs, it’s enough to make you want to climb up Elordi’s tree-trunk frame and punch his lights out. Yet the actor can, much like Presley himself, switch the charm on with a mere flick, and suddenly Priscilla’s teenage-dream fantasy becomes that much easier to understand.
As good as Elordi is – and as wholly different his Elvis is from Austin Butler’s in Luhrmann’s film – it is Spaeny who proves to be the real revelation. Playing the title character from a high-schooler to young bride to unprepared mother, the actor makes every stage of Priscilla’s dream-turned-nightmare life seem wholly real. Spaeny can project wide-eyed naiveté as well as she can play the scorned lover or overwhelmed parent. And the scenes in which she telegraphs both her lovesick desperation and simmering unease to her caring but clueless mother (Dagmara Dominczyk) are uneasy and tender in equal measure.
Alongside her director, Spaeny pulls off a beguiling magic trick of on-screen acting: she grows up right before our eyes. This is all the more impressive given that the actor has said in interviews that the film’s tight production schedule meant she’d be playing Priscilla “pregnant in the morning, then after lunch I’d be 14 years old.”
The real lesson of Priscilla, then? The next time that Sofia Coppola asks for money, just give it to her. Give her all of it.