Damsel (2024, dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo)

by | Mar 8, 2024

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 107 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 8 March 2024

WHO’S IN DAMSEL?

Millie Bobby Brown, Angela Bassett, Robin Wright, Ray Winstone, Nick Robinson, Brooke Carter, Shohreh Aghdashloo

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (director), Dan Mazeau (writer), Morgan Bushe, Chris Castaldi, Jeff Kirschenbaum and Joe Roth (producers), David Fleming (composer), Larry Fong (cinematographer), John Gilbert (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A noblewoman (Brown) is married into a royal family – only to then be sacrificed to a dragon-dwelling pit…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON DAMSEL?

Immediately, director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Damsel attempts to set itself apart from every fairy tale where the handsome prince rescuing the helpless princess. It even goes so far as to have lead Millie Bobby Brown defiantly declare that “this is not one of them” during an opening voiceover, as though other fairy tale subversions like Shrek, The Princess Bride, Pan’s Labyrinth and even Hansel & Gretal: Witch Hunters didn’t exist before it, and similarly told viewers not to expect the traditional bedtime story.

However, the more that the film goes along, it becomes clear that it’s actually no different from many other stories, and it isn’t an entirely successful mish-mash of all those stories either, to where it renders the film a strangely unengaging fantasy action-thriller that’s as thin as the paper on which more fascinating fairy tales are printed.

The film stars Brown as Elodie, a young noblewoman in a barren kingdom that is on its last resources, so when news arrives to her father Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone) and her stepmother Lady Bayford (Angela Bassett) that the royal family of a more prosperous neighbouring kingdom seeks Elodie as the bride of the handsome Prince Henry (Nick Robinson), she decides to fulfil her duties and unite both families. However, shortly after the wedding, Elodie is transported to a sinister ritual in the mountains, where Henry’s mother Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright) explains that their family has committed to a blood sacrifice for centuries, before promptly throwing Elodie down into the cavern to be killed by a vengeful dragon (voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo). From thereon, the film becomes a standard survival film, as Elodie makes her way through numerous crawlspaces and even comes across healing larvae in order to escape the cave and the sinister clutches of the dragon, who plays a deadly cat-and-mouse game with her latest human prey.

It’s a bit of a relief when the film eventually settles on that angle, because for the entirety of its first act, Damsel is rather slow-moving. It’s understandable why this script, by Dan Mazeau, is taking its time to set everything up, including the delivery of necessary exposition and establishing certain character traits (at least, what few there actually are), but it feels much more drawn out than it needs to be, and since the characters aren’t particularly interesting or unique enough to really get behind, it gets dull very quickly. The only thing going for it is that it’s not a poorly-crafted opening act; the sets, costumes and cinematography can be pleasant to look at, like you’re watching a high-budgeted live-action remake of a Disney fairy tale, and Millie Bobby Brown is certainly carrying many of her scenes, despite her character not really having that much going for her at this particular stage.

Damsel does get a bit more intriguing once Brown’s Elodie is thrown into that pit for much of the rest of the movie, but not necessarily more exciting. Even with the threat of a big dragon that breathes not just fire but full-blown lava – and yes, there are one or two shockingly graphic melting scenes in this otherwise 12-certificate film – there is little tension felt in Elodie’s mission to survive. Many of the obstacles that she has to endure in order to progress forward are pretty straightforward and easy, with few physical sacrifices made other than a couple more rips in her wedding gown, and other than trying to make it out to safety there’s little progression to her already strong-willed and resourceful character. Since the path is made clear for her by the filmmakers, there’s less and less reason for the viewer to form an emotional attachment to Elodie, since it rarely feels like a different person is coming out of that cave rather than the one who was thrown in.

Mazeau’s writing helps neither Brown nor her co-stars, for they are all stuck with very basic dialogue and simplistic characterisations (for instance, you know right away just from looking at them that this other royal family is bad news, and they don’t exactly keep their sinister intentions that much of a secret before the big reveal, either). The script also blatantly lends from so many other stories that its redundancy reins supreme, most notably from Game of Thrones which Damsel is trying to be a more family-friendly version of – Elodie and her family may as well be living in Winterfell with the other Starks, while this pristine and seemingly friendly kingdom they travel to is practically a clone of King’s Landing and the realm of the Lannisters – but obviously without as much of an edge. Throw in elements from films such as The Descent, The Revenant, The Hobbit and even a little bit of Ready or Not, and you have yourself not so much a damsel but a script that’s in distress.

Redundancy of the script aside, as well as some very questionable visual effects work – certain green-screen shots make the effects in Argylle look like Godzilla Minus One Damsel is strangely not as engaging as its hybrid of fairy-tale fantasy and action-thriller suggests. Since there is such a low-level fixation on these characters, in a narrative that takes a consistently predictable route, you’re less likely to be genuinely intrigued by where it’s going, because it’s either been spelt out for you early on, or you’ve seen other movies do the whole fairy-tale subversion thing in much cleverer and more interesting ways. You stick with it because, again, it’s not a poorly-made film, as Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is a talented enough filmmaker, though the fact that this is his first film in well over a decade does show that he’s been out of the game for a while, while Millie Bobby Brown remains as captivating an on-screen presence as she’s always been (and on that note, is it just me or is she turning more and more into a clone of Natalie Portman? It’s now at a point where I want to see them play the same character at different ages, as it would be incredibly fitting).

Unfortunately, if you’re hoping that Damsel is a story that’s worthy of those genuine talents, this is not one of them.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Damsel is a strangely unengaging fantasy action-thriller where, despite some decent production values and a reliable central turn by Millie Bobby Brown, it struggles to generate enough excitement from its paper-thin set of plot and characters, which quickly turn it into a dull and redundant experience that’s in dire need of saving.

Two out of five stars

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