DAMSEL. Netflix’s Mother of Dragons [REVIEW]

Millie of the Brown House, Eleven, Damsell, Unburnt, Queen of Aurea, Mother of Dragons.

Przemysław Mudlaff

11 March 2024

“This is not a fairy tale for good little girls,” they said. “Literally, we’re turning classic princess tales upside down,” they added. “Damsell will be a bold, new approach to typical fantasy narration,” they assured. As it turns out, the announcements from Netflix’s marketing experts and the creators themselves of the latest production from one of the streaming giants were quite boastful. And while most of the promises made in these statements and slogans were somewhat fulfilled in Damsell, the pleasure of watching Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s film can be found elsewhere.

A Tale of Truth, Lies, and Revenge

Damsell is connected to classic fairy tales like Cinderella only in the first act, where we meet Elodie (Millie Bobby Brown), her younger sister Floria (Brooke Carter), father Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone), and stepmother (Angela Bassett). Lord Bayford rules over a land plagued by frost and hunger. Their unexpected chance for improvement comes with the visit of a royal messenger who delivers a sealed envelope with proposals to Elodie’s father. Prince Henry asks for the hand of the eldest Bayford daughter. Lord convinces the intelligent but reluctant-to-marry-a-stranger Elodie that this is their only chance to save their subjects, as empty granaries won’t last through winter. Elodie (not accidentally named, as it comes from Frankish origin, meaning “full possession,” “heritage”) agrees with her father, and soon the entire Bayford family arrives in the sunny Aurea (the city’s name likely also not coincidental, referencing Latin aurum), where the royal family resides in their impressive castle at the foot of a mysterious, monumental mountain.

From the moment the Bayfords arrive in Aurea, suspicious elements creep into what has been a rather classic fairy tale, revealing to attentive viewers that Queen Isabelle’s (Robin Wright) intentions are far from simply making her son happy. Before the story deviates almost entirely from the fairy tale motif to a light version of a slasher, where Elodie transforms from a talkative, caring innocent into a Lara Croft-like final girl (or rather, final princess), it’s worth noting the first encounter between her family and the royal family. When the queen asks Ellie (her father’s daughter) what her strongest trait is, and Ellie responds with honesty, the ruler of Aurea remarks that some might consider that a weakness. In the context of later events and Elodie’s discoveries as she fights to survive against the dragon, this scene proves significant. Damsell appears primarily as an intelligent tale of the struggle between truth and lies, leading to revenge. While all these revisionist elements regarding classic fairy tales, as well as the feminist undertones that were heavily advertised, do exist here, they are presented in such a unsubtle, stale, and underdeveloped manner that they fail to evoke significant impressions.

The Duchess and the Dragon

Did I mention the dragon? Yes, there’s a dragon in Damsell, or rather, a talking female dragon! I must admit, when the main character of Fresnadillo’s film found herself in the mountain cave that served as the monster’s lair, I had monstrous concerns about the CGI quality in this production. Let’s face it, Netflix productions don’t usually dazzle viewers in that regard. Fortunately, the quality of the computer-generated special effects in Damsell is mostly at a very high level. So while the royal family’s castle might seem artificial, the appearance of the dragon should make a stunning impression on most viewers. Add to that the fluid, very natural movement of the monster, great ideas introducing it onto the scene (flaming bats or spewing fiery lava), and the fact that it speaks with Shohreh Aghdashloo’s characteristic hoarse voice, and you get a truly phenomenal and terrifying opponent for innocent Elodie.

Is Duchess Elodie truly as innocent and doomed to failure in her encounter with the dragon? Damsell is a bit of a different, but still a fairy tale, so we know that nothing bad should happen to Ellie. However, Fresnadillo and company turned the film’s main character into a combination of Lara Croft, John Rambo, and Angus MacGyver in the span of a few minutes of battling the monster (you have no idea what a wedding dress can be used for!). Fresnadillo and Millie Bobby Brown have indeed created in Damsell a Netflix mother of dragons, a solid answer to HBO’s serial hit’s Daenerys Targaryen.

A Festival of Unused Talent

Unfortunately, aside from the sensational monster, excellent cinematography, intriguingly crafted world, good Millie Bobby Brown (though she could dial down her expressiveness and inject some humor into her performance), an interesting tale of truth and lies, and attempts to refresh fairy tale motifs (although these have been refreshed for some time now), Damsell has several flaws. These stem primarily from the weakness of Dana Mazeau’s screenplay. Mazeau seems completely uninterested in the fates of secondary characters. As a result, impressive acting names like Bassett, Winstone, or Wright only get to utter a few sentences, although expanding their perspective would surely add more depth to the story.

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Damsell will certainly not become a fantasy classic. It’s a film that might have wanted to be something greater than it is, but script problems will never allow it to achieve the intended greatness. Nevertheless, Damsell is truly entertaining, and I’m convinced it will bring joy to many Netflix subscribers. It’s also another significant step forward in the impressive career of the still very young Millie Bobby Brown, who is no longer just Eleven but has also become Netflix’s mother of dragons.

P.S. If you haven’t already, don’t watch the trailer for Damsell. It practically spoils the entire film by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo.

Przemysław Mudlaff

Przemysław Mudlaff

He appreciates the truth and sincerity of the intentions of its creators in cinema. He loves to be emotionally kicked and abused by the film, but also happy and amused. A hunter of film curiosities, references and connections. A fan of the works of PTA, von Trier, Kieślowski, Lantimos and Villeneuve. What he likes the most is talking about the cinema over a beer, and the beer has to be cold and thick, you know what.

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