Early reviews for Sean McNamara’s The King’s Daughter are so negative that there are parts of me that want to defend it reluctantly. Reluctantly, of course, because this movie is terrible. This is the second worst movie I’ve seen in the past five weeks. It’s gaining a notorious reputation on aggregator sites like Letterboxd. But it narrowly misses the designation of being the worst because it at least has some production value. But then again I suppose every other production could have bought Party City costumes, rented out Versailles, and come up with something better.
Another ace card this movie has is Kaya Scodelario. I keep recasting this with different factors in mind. But Scodelario is one of two actresses between 18 to 45 who could have pulled this off. She adds a kind of grounded authenticity in an otherwise gaudy fictional world. The other actress of course is Natalie Portman. She was attached to play the lead in this movie in 2002 and has her own set of detractors.
Back on topic, Scodelario plays Marie-Josephe, a fictional young woman who find herself moving from a seaside French convent during 1685 to the court of Louis XIV (Pierce Brosnan). Sleeping in a new bed is uncomfortable, even if it’s fit for a princess. But another reason bothering her away from her bed is the music coming out of the mouth of a mermaid (Fan Binging). A mermaid trying to get out of an underground grotto that Louis put her in.
The few critics who saw the movie had mixed things to say about the diversity in it. In fairness, this has two women of colour performing minor roles in a movie about the Ancien Regime. Two out of eleven roles is still less than proportional than the demographics of postmodern France. Marie-Josephe gets Magali (Crystal Clarke), a Black lady-in-waiting. I didn’t know that random women with a spoiler alert get ladies in waiting. Magali says a throwaway line in the beginning where she talks about people taking her away from her parents. I didn’t know that that’s what they called it these days.
And of course, there’s Fan, who some critics cynically say exist here because of the Chinese producers, which doesn’t feel fair. But I agree with most of them that making her eyes look bigger to make her less Asian feels suspect. Also, it’s either Barry Berman and James Schamus’ script gives her jibberish for lines or it’s real Mandarin but the sound quality is just bad.
Scodelario puts inflections in her expression that seem funny whether or not she intend them to be. The movie hinges then on Marie-Josephe’s friendship with the mermaid. She’s also trying to find out why Louis hired pirates (including Benjamin Walker) to capture the mermaid. Marie-Josephe falls for the pirate. Anyway, some quack (Pablo Schreiber) convinced Louis that the mermaid’s heart holds the secret to eternal life. And Marie-Josephe is stating the obvious that killing a mermaid is cruel. As I wrote just in this paragraph, she does a lot here without taking the movie too seriously. But it’s too bad that her veteran co-stars aren’t. Brosnan can do camp but there’s no spark here. It’s like he’s letting his lace front do his acting for him most of the time. The camera also captures the laziest William Hurt performance, which is a disappointing first for him.
The King’s Daughter took me to a rabbit hole on how unfilmable the Ancien Regime is, or how filmmakers don’t even bother touching that time in history. There are movies that use the later Ancien Regime for its setting, like Liberte and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, because it’s sexier. Others depict the decades before Louis’ birth, a time that gives France grit. I’m sure someone’s going to find a new angle on this era. But all anyone can think of when it comes to this time are gold and wigs, things most viewers can’t relate to nowadays.
The King’s Daughter also treats Marie-Josephe’s relationship with Louis as a spoiler, which would make sense in its original title The Sun and The Moon. I get that there are literal movies that use “the Con-Men” as a title and it takes the protagonist in that movie to con someone. But making Marie-Josephe’s lineage a secret makes no sense here. I don’t even know why I’m treating it like a spoiler because it’s so obvious, as the new title suggests.
Lastly, this movie took 23 years and it has costumes and mermaids and palaces and proto-Steampunk and somehow the production took out all of the fun out it. But if you want to see it, go ahead, it’s you’re money to waste.