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Review: ‘The King’s Daughter’: A Feast for the Eyes But Troubling

Review: ‘The King’s Daughter’: A Feast for the Eyes But Troubling

Based on the science fiction novel by Vonda N. McIntyre, The King’s Daughter is a whimsical alternate history/fairy tale set in the palace of Versailles that showcases a friendship between a talented young woman and a mermaid. 

The film begins with France’s King Louis XIV (Pierce Brosnan, The World Is Not Enough) commissioning a hunt to Atlantis to capture a mermaid to gain immortality. The royal physician Dr. Labarthe (Pablo Schreiber, Orange Is the New Black) believes that taking the life force of the Mermaid (Bingbing Fan, Iron Man 3) during the upcoming solar eclipse will grant the King immortality. But the King’s minister, Pere La Chaise (John Hurt), is skeptical of the morality of this plan. 

Coincidentally, Pere La Chase is scheduled to bring the king’s love child, Marie-Josephe D’Alember (Kaya Scodelario, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), a talented composer who has been raised in a convent, back to Versailles to live at court. Marie-Josephe arrives at court and is assigned a servant, Magali (Crystal Clarke, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), who happily schools Marie-Josephe on the unsaid rules of living at court. Of course there’s a love story woven into the narrative between Marie-Josephe and the man who captures and cares for the Mermaid, seaman Yves De La Croix (Benjamin Walker, The Underground Railroad). Although Marie-Josephe is of the noble class, her closest female allies are her servant Magali and the Mermaid, who are coincidentally the only women of color in the film.

Costume designer Lizzy Gardiner (The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) captures the eye with her unconventional approach. She gives a nod to the 17th century Baroque style in the male members of The Sun King’s court, but the women were liberated from the traditional rigid bodices, elaborate hoop skirts, and intricate wigs. The female courtiers wear dresses reminiscent of formal gowns in the mid to late 1970s. There was not a hoop skirt to be seen, and the fabrics chosen were all silky, flowy or chiffon, giving an airy effervescence that made the courtesans glide through the scenes like beautiful sea creatures on land. 

In sharp contrast, the male courtiers’ costumes had sharp, regimented, well defined lines that created a fantastic counterpoint. King Louis XIV was a divine combination of the masculine and feminine with his perfectly tailored velvet doublet jackets paired with lace front open shirts and wavy shoulder length dark brown locs. He looked like he just stepped off of the cover of a romance novel and onto the screen, and I mean that in a good way. Pierce Brosnan is 68 years old and he still delivers some dashing sex appeal. 

I really loved the costume styling and art direction of this film. Special shout out to Véronique Boslé the hair stylist supervisor who created the perfect light, airy hairstyles that fit each character’s essence. The distinct beauty of natural hair is in full effect with Magali. Seeing her natural Afro onscreen in this world was a stunning statement.

Director Sean McNamara’s background is creating “traditional” family TV shows and films. He’s currently directing the biopic Regan starring Dennis Quaid. The writing team of The King’s Daughter includes Ron Bass (Rain Man), Barry Berman (Benny and Joon) and former actor turned writer Laura Harrington (Amy Grape, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?). While The King’s Daughter is able to make solid statements on disrupting social norms placed on women and the need for white male dominance to utilize the creative capital of women to sustain power, the film sticks to stock stereotypes. 

It’s interesting that in a story where the imagination is allowed to believe that in the world of 17th-century court of Louis XIV, the city of Atlantis exists and there are Mermaids and Mermen having Merbabies swimming around in the ocean, the only Black woman in Versailles is Magali the maid, who in addition to being Marie-Josephe’s all around personal assistant, probably has to change her chamberpot. The only Asian woman in the film is the Mermaid, who is considered to be less than human and has life-giving powers the white men want to kill her for in order to steal. The writers don’t even give this character a name. She’s literally called “The Mermaid.”

The King’s Daughter is a solid family film if your family is firmly rooted in values of extremely conservative white people in the 1980s. The actors all play their roles believably and the world of the film is a beautiful place to experience for 90 minutes. There’s no shame in being or playing a person of the servant class, but in the 21st century with all of the incredible films and TV shows that humanize Black and AAPI women and girls as fully fleshed out nuanced people, why waste your time on this film? 

I strongly believe that some white writers of a certain age live in such segregated, closed societies that the only Black people they know are the people who work in service to them. Of course, they love that nanny, driver, or personal assistant, and these workers are essential. Yes, Magali is a wonderful character. She’s sweet, honest, loyal, and wise. She’s actually got my favorite line in the film, “A little trauma can inspire greatness.” And Magali does have some comfort, power, and influence within her situation. But the Mermaid is this tragic beautiful creature who, even though these white men capture her and tear her away from her family to kill her to steal her power to benefit the king, comes to save the white woman when she needs her most. Ultimately, this kind of family film is dangerous because of the stock messages white writers have been programmed to write into their stories serve only to uphold white dominance as a norm. 

I don’t have kids, but I was a kid who grew up in a time period where the only women who looked like me onscreen were secondary essential workers in servitude to the white characters. I want little girls of color to be able to see themselves in films without having to do the mental gymnastics of finding equality in servitude or reckoning with the fact that their ethnicity has been cast as a creature, considered less than human. White kids don’t have to do that. We need family films that value truth and complexity in storytelling enough to hire a multi-racial writers able to create a world where both mermaids exist and the dark-skinned Black female character isn’t living in servitude. 

If you’re a person who is able to compartmentalize the messages behind the beautiful costumes, talented attractive actors, Julie Andrews’ yummy voiceover narration, and a comfortable story, in The King’s Daughter you’ll be able to enjoy this film as a historical science fiction love story. But if you’re able to dive deeper, below the surface, you’ll find the same stereotypical tropes and propaganda white writers have been shoving down our throats ever since films were invented 100 years ago and you might feel like 90 minutes of your life force was stolen watching this film. 

The King’s Daughter opens nationwide in theaters on January 21st.

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