Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Prince and Me



USA 2004 : Martha COOLIDGE : 107 mins

It’s a crowded field: Chloe Sevigny (29), Reese Witherspoon (28), Maggie Gyllenhaal (26), Claire Danes (25), Kirsten Dunst (22), Scarlet Johansson (20) and Lindsay Lohan (18) all have their admirers. But many wise judges reckon that 23-year-old Julia Stiles is currently American cinema’s best actress under the age of 30. Stiles first signalled her promise when making short work of David Mamet’s notoriously tough dialogue in State and Main (2000) – providing welcome freshness in anotherwise depressingly airless film – and has been impressing London audiences in this summer’s West End revival of the same writer’s Oleanna.

The play’s run just so happens to terminate on the exact same weekend that Stiles’s latest film arrives in our cinemas – but The Prince & Me turns out to be a rather less taxing and worthwhile vehicle for the star’s considerable talents. An anodyne, overlong romantic fantasy targeted squarely at undemanding teenage girls, this is the unlikely tale of how Danish Crown Prince Edvard (Mably) enrols at Wisconsin’s famously ‘party-hearty’ Madison University where – posing as commoner ‘Eddie’ – he quickly falls for aspiring medic Paige Morgan (Stiles). Their engagement makes worldwide headlines, but Paige has second thoughts when it becomes clear that becoming a royal would entail the sacrifice of her own career-ambitions…

Twenty years ago, Coolidge was one of a promising wave of female directors who looked set to finally shatter Hollywood’s misogynistic barriers. But her so-so films never made the impact of her contemporaries Penelope Spheeris, Kathryn Bigelow and Penny Marshall. In the nineties, Coolidge’s career seemed to just peter out – reaching a nadir with the widely-panned Matthau-Lemmon vehicle Out to Sea (1997). She’s since regrouped with TV work, directing episodes of Sex and the City, and uncovering hitherto-unsuspected thespian skills in Halle Berry with Emmy-winning biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999).

The Prince & Me represents a very innocuous kind of big-screen comeback – one which manages to waste a surprisingly strong cast. Mably makes little impression – indeed, Tony Munch blasts him off the screen in a one-screen cameo as a diminutive charismatic redneck – but Stiles receives solid back-up from her British co-stars Ben Miller (very amusing as Eddie’s unflappable butler Soren), Miranda Richardson (Queen Rosalind) and James Fox (King Haraald). Not that Miller, Richardson or Fox ever seem particularly Danish – everyone in Denmark, with the exception of a priest and a taxi-driver, seems to speak English even when Paige isn’t around.

And Danish viewers expecting to see the sights of Copenhagen are in for a shock – apart from a few brief establishing shots, location work was done in the rather less pricey environs of the Czech capital Prague. The citizens of Madison, Wisconsin have even stronger grounds for discontent – you do have to wonder why the (four) writers responsible for script and story chose this particular campus, very probably the most picturesque in the whole of North America, only to do all the filming in faceless Toronto.

Then again, it’s puzzling why they picked Denmark when so very little is made of any Hamlet link: when Paige helps Eddie out with his Shakespeare, they’re studying Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps it’s because American audiences are familiar with the pastry ‘Apple Danish’? The real-life Danish Crown Prince Frederik did marry a foreign ‘commoner’ (Tasmania’s Mary Donaldson) around the time the film was released in the US, but this seems to have been a pure coincidence (and did nothing to boost the movie’s disappointing box-office).

The last time Hollywood went down this path was The Princess Diaries, which at least bothered to make up an imaginary Ruritanian state for its American ‘royal’. The Prince & Me founders by trying to keep one foot in something approaching reality, with the hopelessly naive Eddie implausibly stepping in to solve an intractable “Danish labour problem.” If it’s ‘Meet the Royal Parents’ you’re after, Shrek 2 is a much more solid proposition right now. The Prince & Me, having set up a potentially intriguing clash of cultures, philosophies and personalities, stumbles as the inevitable happy ending looms on the horizon – which is reached by means of some awkward and hurried contrivances.

The career/marriage choices faced by Stiles’s Mona Lisa Smile character seem infinitely more believable in comparison. But the The Prince‘s writers were always on something of a hiding to nothing, as nobody would really believe that such a feisty, attractive and intelligent young woman would give the blandly handsome, hopelessly wet Eddie a second look. Paige and Stiles both deserve better – and so do we.

7th July, 2004
(seen 4th June : Vue, Leicester : press show – Cinema Days event)

by Neil Young