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Cailee Spaeney as Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s new film, Priscilla.
Cailee Spaeney as Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s new film, Priscilla.

Pop CultureJanuary 26, 2024

Review: Priscilla takes the spotlight

Cailee Spaeney as Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s new film, Priscilla.
Cailee Spaeney as Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s new film, Priscilla.

In the new film from director Sofia Coppola, Priscilla Presley steps out of the shadow of her famous husband – with winning results, writes Sam Brooks.

Think of Priscilla Presley, and chances are you think of her image – beehive updo, lash extensions,  pink Jackie O-style outfit – and not much else. The story of the young woman who became Elvis Presley’s wife has never been told especially well. Sofia Coppola’s new film, Priscilla, aims to rectify that.

Two crucial choices underpin Coppola’s storytelling choices. Firstly, the film only covers the period between 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (newcomer Cailee Spaeny) meeting Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), and her leaving him just over a decade later. Secondly, the film is so tightly focused on her experience that it barely features the music of Elvis at all. This isn’t the story of a rock and roll star, this is the story of a woman who happened to marry a rock and roll star.

So, in terms of Coppola’s oeuvre, Priscilla is closest to Marie Antoinette, another story about a young woman hurling herself against the walls of a gilded cage. Whereas in Marie Antoinette the cage was the Palace of Versailles, in Priscilla the cage is basically Elvis himself. Rather than framing Elvis as an out-and-out violent abuser (and it’s worth noting that the film is based on Priscilla Presley’s own memoir, and made with her blessing), the film instead depicts him as intensely controlling. He’s clearly in love – or at least infatuated – with a limited idea of Priscilla, rather than with Priscilla herself. 

The good

Coppola’s films live and die on two things. They have to successfully convey a vibe so dreamlike that watching can feel like being in a trance – often at the expense of a strong narrative through-line. They also have to have a lead performance, or performances, that keep you hooked in spite of this.

The vibe of Priscilla is, as per usual, absolutely impeccable. It is quiet, beautifully art directed, and so delicately rendered that it could almost float away. Graceland, where much of the film is set, feels like a perfectly appointed living room, its own kind of prison. Despite its oppressiveness, Coppola succeeds in making it a world that could seduce a relatively sheltered young person; all smudged glamour and shiny cars.

Among all the design elements, most striking are the costumes – the gorgeous, meticulous work of costume designer Stacey Battat – and the hair and makeup. Priscilla’s sense of style is clear even as a teenager, and while Elvis expresses his need for control by dressing his young bride up like a doll, as Priscilla asserts her independence, she also asserts her own style – literally her most potent form of both expression and rebellion. As the film draws to a conclusion, we see Priscilla find her way to the person, or at least the image, that we all now know.

Jacob Elordi as Elvis Presley and Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s new film Priscilla. (Photo: Supplied)

The impeccable vibe of Priscilla is matched by its performances, especially newcomer Cailee Spaeny who is nothing short of wonderful in the lead role. Not only does she believably handle Priscilla’s growth from mousy teenager to assured woman, but she shows us how Priscilla defines herself, moment by moment, choice by choice, within the confines of a relationship that attempts to keep her in a box. 

The film also makes the crucial, and absolutely correct, choice to sideline Elvis. Elordi, the tallest it-boy in cinema right now, here goes small and subtle – a striking contrast to Austin Butler’s interpretation in Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic. We barely even see Elvis as a rock and roll star; instead we’re presented with a large petulant child, unable to comprehend other people’s wants and needs. Still, we understand why Priscilla would fall, and stay, in love with him; Elordi has the movie star gaze that shines a light wherever he looks. 

The movie’s thin characterisation of Elvis ends up being one of its most pointed statements. By directing her camera so far away from the star, and holding quietly, steadily on his wife, Coppola not only reclaims Priscilla’s story, but uplifts it.

The not-so-good

How easy you find it to sit through what is unambiguously an abusive relationship, depicted with minimal directorial intervention, depends on you. Ultimately, Coppola’s lens is her judgment. She privileges Priscilla’s experience, and her view on it. How comfortably you can sit with that, and with your own potential discomfort, will define your experience of the film.

The verdict

A new Coppola film, a new gem. Priscilla is, for my money, the director’s best film since Marie Antoinette. By putting her own spin on the real-life woman’s iconography, she crystallises Presley’s story with a deeper truth, one anchored in ownership. When Priscilla walks away at the end of the movie, she doesn’t just walk away from Elvis, but from an audience who finally might have some idea of who she really is.

Priscilla is in cinemas now.

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