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Damsel

“There are many stories of chivalry where the heroic knight saves the damsel in distress. This is not one of them.” That is how Millie Bobby Brown’s sumptuous new fantasy film begins, so we know from the start that there will be a damsel, she will be in distress, and she will have to get herself out of it. 

After a brief prologue, with knights facing a fire-breathing dragon, we see Elodie (Brown) chopping wood “centuries later in a faraway land. She and her adored younger sister Floria (a sweet Brooke Carter) live in a remote, snowy community that is in dire circumstances. They are down to selling the drapes in their castle for food. But then a messenger arrives with a letter, closed with a royal seal. A queen is proposing that Elodie become the bride of her son, the prince, with a handsome dowry that will restore their land to prosperity. Elodie is reluctant, but willing to do whatever is necessary to help her people. “I know you always wanted to travel,” her father (leonine Ray Winstone as Lord Bayford) says, trying to make the prospect sound more appealing.  

Elodie and Floria are dazzled by the warmth, bounty, and luxury of the Queen’s home, and heartened by their welcome. Prince Henry (Nick Robinson) seems to be as charming as fairy tale princes are expected to be. His mother (Robin Wright as Isabelle), is another story, regal but remote, coolly rebuffing the attempt at friendship from Elodie’s stepmother, Lady Bayford (an underused Angela Bassett). 

Despite Lady Bayford’s increasing concerns that something is wrong, the wedding goes through, with all the pomp and circumstance a fantasy royal wedding deserves. The production design by Patrick Tatopoulos and costumes by Amanda Monk are gorgeous throughout. The wedding scene is spectacular. Pay attention to the moments when we see Elodie being helped into her spectacular bridal gown. It is not the usual tomboy to beauty makeover moment, and its significance will be revealed later. 

After the wedding there is a strange ceremony near the mouth of a cavern. Ominously, the courtiers are masked. Isabelle runs her dagger across the newlyweds’ palms and mixes their blood. And then, it turns out Elodie is to be sacrificed to the dragon inside the cavern, a part of the centuries-old arrangement that keeps the dragon from preying on the kingdom. 

And so, we switch from “Cinderella” to “Die Hard” in a cave, as Elodie tries to escape from the dragon, again, exceptionally well-designed, and voiced with exquisitely smokey menace by Shohreh Aghdashloo. Remember that dress?  It might as well have been designed by James Bond’s Q, as Elodie McGuyvers it into a survival kit, taking out what my Hollywood costume designer daughter tells me is a corset busk (the stiff board stuck down the bodice), scraping it against the cavern wall to sharpen it into a dagger. She also uses some of the fabric as protection and rips off a lot of it to give her more freedom of movement, always resulting in very fetching tatters. Elodie also finds some resources in the cave along with a few dead bodies of other princesses. There is a whole wall covered with their names, written as they despaired of escape. She discovers bio-luminescent worms to help light her way. 

This section of the film plays like a video game, with Elodie facing one obstacle after another, making some progress but not enough. Brown is on her own for a long stretch, and she is effective at alternating fear and determination. There are some scary surprises especially after other characters arrive in the cavern.  

It’s too bad this is not on a big screen, because the settings are filled with enticing details that bolster some of the weakness of the screenplay. Even on the smaller screen, though, the fresh, female-led take on the traditional tale, including a bit of a sisterhood-is-powerful twist near the end, makes it worth a watch. 

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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Film Credits

Damsel movie poster

Damsel (2024)

Rated PG-13

109 minutes

Cast

Millie Bobby Brown as Princess Elodie

Nick Robinson as Prince Harry

Robin Wright as Queen Isabelle

Shohreh Aghdashloo as Dragon (voice)

Angela Bassett as Lady Bayford

Ray Winstone as The King

Brooke Carter as Floria

Director

Screenplay

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