The King’s Daughter is the cutest costume drama of 1982.
This placid, flaccid fairy-tale of a movie is that rarest of period-piece anomalies — it feels both timeless and dated. Even though it’s a 2022 release, it seems like it could’ve been made at any point these past 40 years. It’s the kind of fancy, inoffensive treacle that HBO used to play all the time back in the ‘80s, some storybook spectacle that would’ve made the kids sit down and shut up for a spell. Hell, the fact that the movie stars Reagan-era leading men Pierce Brosnan and William Hurt may have people wondering if they have, in fact, seen this shit before.
The perennially suave Brosnan is all decked out in a wig and pimpalicious gear as the self-centered King Louis XIV, and the crabby-but-dedicated Hurt is his father confessor and longtime confidant Pere la Chaise. Aspiring to be an immortal leader, he gets a seafaring crew to capture a mermaid (Chinese star Fan Bingbing, getting her motion-capture on) so they can kill her and extract her lifeforce, and he can rule forever.
At the same time, the king welcomes his illegitimate daughter Marie-Josèphe (Kaya Scodelario) to the palace. Breaking the rules at a nearby convent (run by an all-too-briefly seen Rachel Griffiths), the young lady — who has no idea the king is her old man — gets summoned to compose and perform the king’s wake-up music. This free-spirited gal is a breath of fresh air in this stuffy-ass kingdom. While everyone else is hella dolled up, looking like extras in a gotdamn Bryan Ferry video, she often goes makeup-less and dons dresses that make her look like the frontwoman for an alt-country band. She also bonds with the mermaid, as they communicate through sounds and telepathy, and become each other’s moral support.
If you know Daughter’s history, it’s kinda surprising that it’s seeing the light of day. Based on the late Vonda N. McIntyre’s 1997 novel The Moon and the Sun, Daughter has been in development for over 20 years. Sony, Disney, and the Jim Henson Company were all supposed to distribute this at one time or another. (Indie distributor Gravitas Ventures is now dropping it.) At one point, Natalie Portman was attached to play Marie-Josèphe. Believe it or not, principal photography was completed way back in 2014. That’s right — this has been on the shelf for eight years!
Both extravagant and extra as hell, Daughter tries to wow you with its palatial splendor, hopefully distracting you from how cornball and awkwardly assembled all this is. (The movie has four editors!) Director Sean McNamara, no stranger to helming films (Soul Surfer, The Miracle Season) about perservering young girls, works from a Frankenstein-monster-of-a-script (cobbled together by Barry Berman and Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus), which basically strips McIntyre’s book for parts. (In the book, the king’s daughter was his niece.)
As much as it attempts to be a romantic, fantastical yarn with a feminist kick, as our heroine tries to save the mermaid while also fall in love with the hunky sea captain (Benjamin Walker) who snatched the creature, it still feels toothless and ass-backwards. Along with her BFF in the water, Marie-Josèphe is also given a servant of color (Crystal Clarke). And even though they end up being galpals, seeing another sista play a white woman’s loyal valet is still some frustrating shit. The movie even slips in some religion vs. science drama, practically kissing up to the church-going crowd by having Brosnan and Hurt’s characters believe in a higher power, while making the resident villain a smarmy, predictably obnoxious doctor (Pablo Schreiber).
McNamara and cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (the son of Oscar-winning D.P. Conrad L. Hall) make sure they capture all the sumptuous/scrumptious spaciousness in the Palace of Versailles (along with Paris, the movie was shot in Melbourne, Australia, and L.A.). And yet, for all its visual vigor, The King’s Daughter is still some simple-minded sap — a future favorite of your kids when it eventually ends up on cable/streaming, and becomes something parents put on whenever they want some peace and quiet in the damn house.
“The King’s Daughter” is in theaters Friday.