O me! What eyes hath love put in my head
Which have no correspondence with true sight:
Or if they have, where is my judgment fled
That censures falsely what they see aright?
—Shakespeare, Sonnet #148
I don’t think anybody in the audience really realizes how much agony goes into developing hairdos, particularly on actresses.
—Martha Coolidge, commentary, The Prince & me
“The first image of Paige is looking through a microscope, and it’s, I think, a real definition of her character, that sees very small things is a very detailed way, but she doesn’t have a wide vision about her life. The point of the movie being that she is going to learn, through loving the prince, to open herself up to other possibilities. And she is a myopic character, in terms of her drive toward her ambition.”
Director Martha Coolidge’s introductory commentary for the DVD of her romantic comedy, The Prince & Me, suggests the subtleties of characterization and theme she has in mind. While such subtleties don’t quite make up for the screenplay’s essential banality, they do enhance the film considerably. The resourceful director of Valley Girl (1983), Rambling Rose (1991), and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), Coolidge knows how to perk up imperfect material. Still, The Prince & Me presents her with a job of work.
The girl with the microscope is Paige Morgan (Julia Stiles), premed at a Wisconsin university, working overtime to ensure her acceptance to Johns Hopkins Medical School. She’s good at science, where particulars matter, bad at English lit, where metaphor is more important. Enter Prince Edvard Valdemar Dangaard (Luke Mably), prince of Denmark and nice kid who’s used to getting his way and fond of fast cars and easy girls. When his parents—very proper Queen Rosalind (Miranda Richardson) and slightly more indulgent King Haraald (James Fox)—decide that he must get serious, or at least attend a school, he agrees. This because he’s seen a tv ad for tourism in Wisconsin, promising a state full of “Girls Gone Wild.”
And so, he heads off, with wise gofer/actuary Soren (Ben Miller), away from what Coolidge calls the “blue tones, the cold tones” of Denmark, to the warmer, more familial environment inhabited by Paige. (This even though she is a workaholic and science-minded, as already established.) The prince and the farm girl are about to “crash in life,” as Coolidge puts it, leading to moral and cultural improvements for both.
This outcome, of course, only occurs after a series of predictable roadblocks. Though Coolidge says the film is “not just your ordinary chick flick, but a contemporary interpretation of a fairy tale that will surprise you in terms of some of the elements in the film and some of the choices made,” in fact, its interpretation is rather standard, with Cinderella pursuing a medical degree. (The conventional movie romance is underlined by a brief moment on tv, as Edvard flips channels, in which Grace Kelly and Cary Grant kiss in To Catch a Thief (1955); Coolidge admits, the first choice was Roman Holiday, “and we decided that was a little too self-conscious.”)
Edvard and Paige meet cute a few times before their mutual affection becomes impossible for them to ignore. At first, he approaches her in the campus bar where she works (and where she sprays him with soda water when he requests she lift up her shirt for him), then they’re assigned to be lab partners in—you guessed it—chemistry class. Coolidge adds here, “I was looking for the guy who would really balance her, and play opposite her and have chemistry with her, as well as be believably the prince. When I met Luke, it wasn’t just his talent that attracted me, that I was really impressed with… I also felt the chemistry.”
This chemistry is so intense, apparently, that it carries through one scene—a balcony scene no less, she above and he in a campus courtyard below—that was shot with the principals in different locations (Prague and Toronto) and two months apart. Eventually, they must spend time together, occasioned by Paige’s need of scholarly help. “This C in Shakespeare is what brings the two of them together,” observes Coolidge, as Paige reads a big fat “C” on her blue book. “He is simply not the scientist,” adds the director, “but he is the poet.” At least he reads it well, vaguely British-accented, when Paige and he study in a laundry room, surrounded by “romantic lighting.”
Though Edvard insists that he feels “intimidated” by this perfect, driven girl, he also can’t help himself; during a trip to her family farm over Thanksgiving break, he falls in love absolutely, and she realizes her feelings for him, when he helps her brothers win a tractor race. (The DVD’s extras, in addition to Coolidge’s commentary, include a set of three featurettes, on “The Lawnmower Race” (“Shooting it was really a gas”), “The Look” (primarily about the costume design), and “Inside the Fairy Tale,” each less interesting than the other. These repeat production information Coolidge provides in her informative commentary, and offer up typical “behind the scenes” footage. The DVD also has a gag reel, eight deleted or extended scenes (most interesting being an alternate ending, in which it’s not clear that Paige gets her education and her man too, supposedly more “feminist”).
The farm “vacation” features an “Eddie working” montage (he runs around with cows in a pen) and an all -important class lesson, as Paige’s dad explains the destruction of the independent farmer by corporate systems. Edvard takes this new understanding back to Denmark, when he’s called home to take over his ailing dad’s gig, and presents his own version of economic reorganization. Here again, the irrepressible, quite admirable Coolidge makes her point: “The movie is about the meeting of two cultures and people from opposite sides of the world coming out of themselves and becoming better people. But he is also bringing together the two warring sides of all of our economic plate. It’s just a subliminal message… that our solutions have to be made together, with the rich and the workers all coming together to help each other, or we’re not going to get anywhere.”
This subplot might have made for a more compelling, less rote film, but as it stands, the small moments work, more or less independently of one another. In the library at school, for example, Eddie and Paige start flirting, their hands touching under the table, their eyes catching one another’s, even as the dialogue peters out to nothing. Coolidge remarks, “It’s amazing how film can capture the moments between people, even though all the moments that were happening in between the shots were not as easy. It was rushed and everybody was pressured and stuff, but the actors could focus in on these moments and really let themselves feel the experience of each other and play with this scene.”
Again, an example of the weak whole made up of strong parts. The film needs to be over by the time Paige decides to follow Edvard back to Denmark and he proposes (following a dash on his horse to scoop her up, as Coolidge observes, “It’s very, very difficult for horses to run on cobblestones”). Game and quite in love, she gives the princess business a try. Schooled and judged by Rosalind, Paige comes to realize the constant stress of always performing as “royalty.” (As Paige is sitting down to breakfast, Coolidge notes her own lesson learned: “I actually had to go through a negotiation with the prop people about how many pancakes she would eat in the period of one day and how many pancakes they would have to make, and how many pancakes they would have to make at one time… This was a real education to me.”
The first part of the film grants Paige an unusual self-respect and comprehensible naïveté. Paradoxically, in the second and third parts (the movie does go on too long), she’s increasingly compromised, even as she’s apparently pursuing what she wants—her boy and her career. In the end, Coolidge insists, the film concerns cultures (and gendered roles) in compromise. “It felt irresponsible as a woman,” she says, “to do a movie in which I became a proponent of ‘Your prince will come one day, and that’s happily ever after and you won’t have to take care of yourself.’ Because the truth is, we all have to take care of ourselves before we do anything else.”
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