Another year, another biopic about Priscilla Presley and her husband. Although we just got Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis a year ago, his marriage to Priscilla was only touched upon with some of the more eyebrow-raising details omitted. If you’re going to produce another Presley movie, telling it from Priscilla’s perspective provides a fresh approach. Having Sofia Coppola write and direct is also sure to distinguish the film from Luhrmann’s. Where Luhrmann was the ideal choice to portray the theatrical, romanized side of Elvis, Coppola taps into the isolation of his marriage. Both films are tonal opposites, yet they each feel true to their subject matter.
Cailee Spaeny is given the challenging task of portraying Priscilla Presley from age 14 when she met Elvis to their parting at age 28. Despite that significant gap, we see Spaeny believably mature from a shy teenager to a woman who’s ready to carve her own path. In addition to Spaeny’s breakout work as a lead, costume designer Stacey Battat deserves an Oscar nomination for seamlessly pulling this transition off. That said, we should talk about that age difference with Elvis being 24 when he first courted his future wife. Priscilla’s parents aren’t the only ones who find this odd (at least that’s one way of putting it). Like Licorice Pizza, though, it’s all about context.
While they met when Priscilla was 14, the relationship didn’t get serious until she was 17. Even after Priscilla moves to Graceland, Elvis insists that they wait until marriage to have sex. That’s not to say they didn’t do other things in the bedroom. Priscilla also can’t help but suspect that Elvis is having affairs when he’s off performing. There’s a purity to Priscilla that Elvis wants to preserve. Whether this is for her benefit or his benefit is up for debate. Elvis takes over Priscilla’s life, choosing her clothes and makeup as if she were a doll. Of course, it’s not like Elvis has much control over his identity with Colonel Tom Parker calling all of the shots.
Thankfully, Tom Hanks sits this one out with the Colonel designated to an off-screen presence. The film relies on Spaeny as Priscilla and Jacob Elordi as Elvis in what’s practically a two-person show. The onscreen dynamic between the couple ranges from charming to disturbing, especially during Elvis’ violent outbursts. Elvis is always quick to apologize, but Priscilla’s caged bird lifestyle takes a psychological toll. While the film lacks any large-scale musical set pieces, Coppola and the production designers turn Graceland into a vast yet constraining environment. Like Xanadu in Citizen Kane, what looks like a kingdom can feel like a prison.
Although Priscilla gets to the root of this marriage, the film is a missed opportunity in some respects. The story is about Priscilla taking control of her life and figuring out who she wants to be beyond Elvis. Yet, the film only focuses on her relationship with Elvis. We don’t learn much about who she was before Elvis and (more importantly) who she became after the marriage ended. Simply using this movie as a reference, it might seem like being married to Elvis was Priscilla’s most significant achievement. Being a Presley would remain an important part of Priscilla’s life, but there’s more to her than this movie gets across. Nevertheless, Coppola effectively captures a pivotal chapter in Priscilla’s life with a quiet atmosphere and exceptional performances. While it might’ve been a great biopic if Coppola expanded her reach, Priscilla is still a compelling portrait of the Queen behind the King, giving her the spotlight.
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