Sofia Coppola’s career-long interest in emotionally vulnerable young women as well as celebrity culture mesh smoothly in Priscilla. Coppola’s biographical film is a delicate portrait of the short-lived marriage between American singing star Elvis Presley and Priscilla Beaulieu.

Cailee Spaeny plays the titular heroine between the ages of 15, when she first meets Elvis, and 27, when she decides to divorce him. The unequal power equation between one of the most desirable figures in music and a showbiz outsider is marked by Priscilla’s appearance – pretty if not quite remarkable – and the difference in height between her and her strapping partner. Elvis (Jacob Elordi) towers over Priscilla in every which way, telling her how to dress (solid colours suit you better, baby) and how she should behave (forget about a career).

Elvis meets Priscilla in West Germany while serving with the United States Army. The couple later embark on a live-in arrangement at Elvis’s Graceland mansion back home in Memphis. The experience includes long stretches of loneliness for Priscilla as Elvis pursues singing and acting, curious bedroom arrangements, and the warning signs contained in news reports of Elvis’s rumoured affairs.

Coppola’s screenplay, adapted from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, is sharply attuned to the inability of women to resist assertive men as well as the struggle to hold on to the individual self when confronted by stardom. Among the striking images is the opening shot, of Priscilla’s feet gingerly navigating a heavily carpeted floor.

Cailee Spaeny in Priscilla (2023).

Early sequences portray Priscilla as a star-struck teenager swept off her feet by a music icon 10 years her senior. Priscilla changes her appearance and habits to suit her new lifestyle. But the distance from an increasingly busy, easily distracted and pill-popping Elvis inevitably develops into a chasm.

The modestly budgeted film has an unfussy feel that complements a love story that begins simply. Muted in tone except when matters get out of hand, the film maintains an adroit balance between its characters but begins to loosen its grip when it chooses a corner.

Coppola’s chosen tonality works against the later sections, in which the marriage goes belly up. Priscilla’s resigned air is inadequate in bringing out the volatility and pain that surely accompanied the decline.

Priscilla play out as a period drama made in a MeToo-aware present – made possible by reducing Elvis to an example of the selfish, insensitive chauvinist for whom his young wife is only one of the many moving parts in his life. While the device makes for convenient scripting, it ensures that Elvis loses complexity even as Priscilla gains confidence.

The film is a two-hander for the most part. The singer is skilfully played by Jacob Elordi – a tough act to follow from Austin Butler’s explosive portrayal in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022). Cailee Spaeny winningly portrays a demure young woman who comes of age in the glare of flashlights.

Although the soundtrack does not include Presley’s songs, hopefully romantic tracks from the period waft over a marriage that collapses at the altar of uneven expectations. The use of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You is apposite.

Parton famously denied Elvis Presley permission to re-record the song. Its placement in Priscilla fits a movie that provides a harsh re-assessment of a venerated figure alongside a reckoning of the woman who waited for him to finish sowing his wild oats.