The King’s Daughter movie review: a royal disaster

MaryAnn’s quick take: Ostensibly a movie in the same way that a Victorian folly is ostensibly a Japanese temple or a medieval castle. That is: not at all. Like a themed high-school prom from 1994, and an accidental horror.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Pierce Brosnan; big fantasy fan
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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What did I watch? I don’t know. And it hurts my brain to ponder on it.

The King’s Daughter is ostensibly a movie in the same way that, say, a Victorian garden folly is ostensibly a Japanese temple or a medieval castle. Which is to say: not at all, it’s just a hulking ornament built by some dude with too much money in order to make himself feel fancy.

So this movie could itself be a thing that King Louis XIV, the 17th-century French monarch known as The Sun King, might have had installed when he was plumping up his palace at Versailles, for gaudy shits and outrageous giggles, and who cares if it makes any sense or not.

Perhaps not at all coincidentally, Pierce Brosnan (Cinderella, No Escape) here plays King Louis XIV, and he wants to kill a mermaid at the upcoming solar eclipse so he can use her magic to make him immortal. Totally normal monarch. The court physician, Dr. Labarthe (Pablo Schreiber: First Man, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi), is twirling his metaphorical mustache at the idea of dissecting the mermaid to get at her immortality lobe or whatever it is. Meanwhile, Louis’s priest and most trusted adviser, Pere La Chaise (William Hurt: Black Widow, Winter’s Tale) starts to wonder if maybe killing is bad.

The King's Daughter
Parts of this movie were shot at the actual Versailles, so that’s something, I guess.

Dumped into the middle of this is — you guessed it — the king’s daughter, Marie-Josephe (Kaya Scodelario: Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), who wants to save the mermaid (the face of Bingbing Fan [X-Men: Days of Future Past, Iron Man 3], very occasionally, though under a ton of CGI). Marie-Josephe keeps insisting that the mermaid is not a monster or a creature but basically a person, and we’ll just have to take her word on that because the mermaid is not a character at all, just a blur of FX swimming in the little underground pond they’re keeping her in.

Now, Marie-Josephe doesn’t know she’s the king’s daughter, and Louis tells Pere La Chaise that no one must know she is his daughter. In the bizarre narration — by Julie Andrews! (Aquaman, Despicable Me) in a desperate attempt to inject some sense of the fairy tale to this — Marie-Josephe is referred to as the king’s “long-lost daughter,” but: no. She’s been deliberately hidden away, kept prisoner, really, at a nunnery since birth. Why even bring her to Versailles at all? (There’s a suggestion that the king is tired of the musicians in his court, and she’s supposedly a really good musician whose work might please him, but she can’t be the only possible person in all of France for the job, surely?) There is no clear answer to this massive mess of a conundrum, except that they couldn’t have called the movie The King’s Daughter otherwise.

The King's Daughter Kaya Scodelario Benjamin Walker
These two actors fell in love after they met on this movie, and now they’re married and have two kids together. Isn’t that nice?

But here’s the thing! The novel this is very loosely based on isn’t called The King’s Daughter. It’s called The Moon and the Sun, by Vonda N. McIntyre. (It won the highly prestigious Nebula Award in 1997; also nominated that year: George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.) And as far as I can tell without having read it, the character of Marie-Josephe in the book is not, in fact, the king’s daughter. (A new edition of the book has had the poster for this movie slapped on it, along with a title change to The King’s Daughter, as well as one of those bursts that reads “now a major motion picture.” This is, I think, the first time that sort of thing made me reflexively snark, “Well, I wouldn’t call it major…”)

It’s a bit gross that Marie-Josephe’s love interest in the movie, ship captain and mermaid capturer Yves de la Croix (Benjamin Walker: In the Heart of the Sea, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), has the same name as the character in the book who is *blecch* her brother. It’s more than a bit gross that Marie-Josephe’s slave servant in the book here becomes Magali (Crystal Clarke: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Woman in Gold), who instantly loves and trusts the stranger who has been thrust at her, and whom she is happy to serve. But that’s nothing to the weird ickiness of the movie having Louis slobbering all over Marie-Josephe. He knows he’s the younger woman’s father, but no one else does, and the court full of catty, salacious gossipmongers should all be presuming he’s trying to get into Marie-Josephe’s pantaloons, as she herself should be. Plus we’ve seen him getting absolution every morning from the priest over whatever different random court lady shared his bed the night before.

This movie has no idea of the accidental horror of itself.

The King's Daughter Crystal Clarke Kaya Scodelario
I could just strangle her, and she wouldn’t even see it coming…

I repeat: this is mostly a movie about a king — whom we’re supposed to take as rather a nice chap but who is clearly raving mad — who wants to kill a mermaid so he can live forever, not for himself, you see, but for his people. Who universally adore him. (The guillotines of the French revolution are still a century away.)

Oh, and about that court full of catty, salacious gossipmongers. What with the sort-of-modern dress and punk makeup almost everyone is in, it all comes across as themed high-school prom from 1994. That’s kinda horrifying, too. Director Sean McNamara (Raise Your Voice) does not have the wherewithal to make that kind of anachronistic style work, and definitely is not able to render it as the “lavish and glimmering hell” the abbess (Rachel Griffiths: Saving Mr. Banks, Ned Kelly) at Marie-Josephe’s former nunnery decries it as. If only!

This sub-Disneyland-esque crap was shot — not at Epcot Center, apparently! — in 2014, and was completed and originally scheduled for release in 2015. It has been sitting on a shelf for seven years. Somebody’s reverse magic mirror has been holding back this bad luck, but now, it seems, that magic mirror has broken, and we’ve all been cursed.

more films like this:
A Little Chaos [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Netflix US]
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Disney+]

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Sat, Jan 22, 2022 12:45am

Well, it certainly sounds awful, but I’m actually disconcerted by the resemblance of the plot and characters to a 2020 book I just read, called “The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea”. You say the movie’s been on the shelf for a good while – I took a look at that, nice little mess it was. And books take a while to write. It makes no sense, of course, for there to have been any plagiarism involved with such things, but as your write-up went along, I kept thinking, “slave-servant? mermaid giving immortality? princess wants to save mermaid? uh….too close.”

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  althea
Sat, Jan 22, 2022 6:04pm

I just read the description of that book at Amazon: it sounds quite different from the movie.

Bonus! The Kindle edition of that book is only 73p on UK Amazon! It sounds amazing, and it’s a bargain, too. :-) (It’s 99c in the US.)

The McIntyre book is 25 years old. It may have inspired other writers.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Jan 23, 2022 9:10pm

Plot, no; number of elements, yes.

Sat, Jan 22, 2022 2:16am

I have AMC A-List so my friend and I saw this movie for free as a bit and because we were intrigued by the seven year delay. (It’s 25 dollars a month and tickets in my area are 16 dollars, so I was already making a profit after seeing the excellent Licorice Pizza and Scream this month.) My favorite part is during the dance, when Pierce Brosnan said “minuet- 3/4 time” and the orchestra plays a song that is aggressively in 4.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Owen1120
Sat, Jan 22, 2022 6:05pm

I am not musical enough to have picked up on that!

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Jan 22, 2022 7:41pm

It was also funny when the merpeople started speaking to each other and they were just mumbling in a monotone, there was no thought put into the language at all

Sat, Jan 22, 2022 11:25am

Why does the king bring his secret daughter to the court? Because he can! He’s the king! It doesn’t have to make sense! (Screenwriters brush sweat off their collective foreheads. Four of them, plus McIntyre who is now safely dead, though I don’t know how that comes out in terms of who modified whose work. Development on this started in 1999, apparently…)

I’m told that a standard reason to retitle is the “is” factor – thus “Antonio Banderas IS The 13th Warrior” rather than “Eaters of the Dead”. But the small amount of promotion I’ve seen for this definitely centres the King as the character the viewer is meant to care about.

Very good for strangling, guitar strings. Just saying.

I think deliberate anachronism can sometimes work, but you need a really skilled director and screenwriter; it’s perilously easy to flip the audience’s mood from happily going along with the nonsense to being annoyed at it not making sense, and I suspect impossible to get them back once that’s happened.

Also possibly influenced by the book (which I haven’t read either, though McIntyre is one of those authors I keep meaning to read more of because I usually enjoy her work when I do): Kelly Robson’s 2015 short story “Waters of Versailles”, though there it’s a nixie and a heroic hydraulic engineer.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Sat, Jan 22, 2022 6:06pm

I think deliberate anachronism can sometimes work

Of course it can! But it has to serve some sort of purpose in the storytelling, like perhaps drawing analogies between the past and the present. Or something! Precious little thought seems to have gone into this movie, though.

Sun, Jan 23, 2022 4:40pm

I think the costumes were assembled from three different centuries??

Sun, Jan 30, 2022 3:20am

Seven years on the shelf! That’s an impressive degree of hesitation. As I was walking out of an afternoon showing of Belle (pretty visuals and one cool song lightly sprinkled over predictable, histrionic pap. Unfortunately, Wolf Children remains the only competently constructed Hosoda film) I walked past a poster for this movie, and just a glimpse of Brosnan in that hilarious wig had me giggling the entire drive home. How could they make a movie with a plot centered on a mermaid and barely show the mermaid? If it was more cheesy high-fantasy and less prom high-school relationship drama, I’d be tempted to give it a whirl. My next hopefully-so-bad-it’s-good fantasy flick is going to be House of Gucci instead.

Tue, Feb 01, 2022 1:54am

Oh, Pierce. You’re better than this!