BY BECCA JOHNSON DECEMBER 20, 2023
Last year, we had Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, a biopic full of musical mash-ups, busy cinematography, glitz, glamour and rock 'n' roll. This year, we have Priscilla, directed by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) and starring Cailee Spaeny in the titular role. Taking a softer, subtler approach and proving that there's easily room for both, this year's Elvis-related flick focuses on Priscilla Beaulieu, from her first meeting with him at age 14 to their turbulent divorce. A meticulously crafted character study that tells it's story through it's character, Priscilla is a beautifully written and tremendously well-acted film that will stay in your mind days after viewing.
When teenage Priscilla Beaulieu meets Elvis Presley, the man who is already a meteoric rock-and-roll superstar becomes someone entirely unexpected in private moments: a thrilling crush, an ally in loneliness, a vulnerable best friend.
Cailee Spaeny has been on our radars for a while, delivering excellent turns in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), The Craft: Legacy (2020) and popular miniseries Mare of Easttown (2021), fronted by Kate Winslet. However, Priscilla is her star-making performance. Spaeny's performance as Priscilla is captivating, breathing life into a character that serves as the heart and soul of the film. With depth and nuance, Spaeny carefully portrays Priscilla's journey, revealing layers of vulnerability and innocence as the run-time progresses. We follow Priscilla through times of strength and bravery, and times of naivety, and Spaeny does her absolute most. Through subtle nuances in her performance, she unveils Priscilla's internal struggles and complex emotions perfectly. Starring opposite is Euphoria star Jacob Elordi, who is also great. Whilst it might not be as memorable as Austin Butler's turn last year, Elordi delivers exactly what this film needs. His portrayal fits seamlessly into the narrative, complimenting Spaeny's Priscilla. With fabulous on-screen chemistry, the pair are magnetic both separately and together. The young talent we have in the industry right now is worth talking about.
Sofia Coppola has a strong set of films under her belt, from Lost in Translation in 2003 which focus' on two lost souls looking for connection to offbeat comedy drama On the Rocks in 2020. Priscilla is not only an excellent addition, but matches the tone of her filmography perfectly. Coppola is known for exploring themes of womanhood and femininity, and her efforts are always contemplative and character driven. Priscilla manages to showcase what Coppola does best, the narrative resonating with her signature style, balancing vulnerability and subtle beauty. In this film, Coppola takes care to explore the highs and lows of her life, the blessings and curses of young love, teenage angst and even social status. Priscilla Beaulieu's story was always in safe hands with Coppola.
Another common trait of Coppola's directorial style also runs through the veins of Priscilla; her gorgeous, jaw-dropping visuals. Not only does each shot feel meticulously crafted like a painting, but she enlists her pink-hued pastel colour palette and hazy dream-like atmosphere to create an indulgent affair that feels luxurious and subtly glamorous. Whether it's the use of colour, the composition of shots to add to the isolation and loneliness of the lead character or the seamless camera movements, every aspect of the cinematography in Priscilla adds another layer of beauty. The aesthetics make it so easy to slip into Priscilla's world, much like the character herself.
Before viewing, many assume that Priscilla was made to show the dark side of Elvis Presley, and portray him as a villain, which is understandably putting fans of the talented singer off viewing. However, whilst honing in on Priscilla and her experience, Coppola does well to keep things pretty unbiased. You get an in-depth look at the human side of both characters, the complexities in their relationship and the effect the overall events have on who she becomes as a person, rather than just the treatment from her spouse. Whilst not shying away from showing Elvis' questionable decisions, his scandalous side on tour and his angry outbursts, Coppola shows it's not just black-and-white.
Priscilla is a slow building character study that takes it's time to develop it's storyline and complex characters. It has plenty of moments of strength, power and excitement that take a softer and subtler approach, but by doing so, these moments stay on your mind for much longer and pack more of a punch than you may initially think. It also allows the audience to think for themselves, letting us draw our own conclusions on how the smaller events and conversations add to the wider picture. From Priscilla applying her picture-perfect make-up whilst going into labour to not letting the love of her life attend her graduation through fear of not being allowed just one moment to shine, it's quietly haunting and often harrowing. It's
these scenes that put Priscilla on the map, creating one of the most thought-provoking and powerful movies of the year.