Principal Cast : Millie Bobby Brown, Ray Winstone, Angela Bassett, Brooke Carter, Nick Robinson, Robin Wright, Milo Twomey, Nicole Joseph, Shohreh Aghdashloo.
Synopsis: A dutiful damsel agrees to marry a handsome prince, only to find the royal family has recruited her as a sacrifice to repay an ancient debt.


This review contains spoilers for Damsel

A bastardised mix of fairy-tale and postmodern feminist ass-kicking, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Damsel is a redolent throwback to cheap 90’s schlock like Rob Cohen’s Dragonheart or Peter Hyams’ The Musketeer that works only thanks to the solid leading turn by Millie Bobby Brown (who also co-produces) and fabulously second-rate dragon effects and a vocal turn from Shohreh Aghdashloo as the film’s principal antagonist. While not particularly intelligent, and replete with any amount of plot logic deficiencies, there’s still some dumb fun to be mined with Damsel that will engage tweenage girls and undiscerning adults alike.

Set in a bizarre feudal Tudor-esque society, in a “far off land”, young noblewoman Elodie (Brown), the eldest daughter of Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone) and stepmother Lady Bayford (Angela Bassett) is invited to wed Prince Henry of Aurea (Nick Robinson) at the behest of the Queen (Robin Wright), in order to save Bayford’s subjects from starvation due to poor land and harsh winters. Arriving at the palace, Elodie is quickly wed to the Prince but becomes the latest victim in what appears to be an annual sacrifice, thrown into a chasm where a large dragon dwells, and having to fight her way past all manner of dangers. The seemingly benign royal family have an uneasy truce with the dragon, which itself harbours a tragic secret that will spell the beginning of the end of the Queens reign.

Fresh from her detective antics as Enola Holmes, Millie Bobby Brown dons another corset, wields a sword, and suffers third degree burns as Elodie, the titular damsel thrown into a dragon pit as a sacrifice for ongoing peace. That she would find herself once again headlining a Netflix film instead of appearing on the Big Screen (I know, she was in a couple of Godzilla films but one might argue she needs better material than this to cement herself as a major drawcard) is indicative of the streaming platform’s inability to give her a major career outside Stranger Things and the B-movies she’s been saddled with in the interim. Brown is a solid actress and deserves more than what Damsel offers, for sure. As Elodie she gets to spar both verbally and physically with a quite imposing digital dragon and all the fire-breathing, body-shredding violence that engenders, which adds muscular street cred to her filmography even if it offers little by way of mental stimulation. Damsel, for better or worse, is a largely formulaic story in which subgenre conventions are overturned without the grace of intelligence to make them interesting, with a commendably solid supporting cast doing their best with minimal characterisations to transform this girl-vs-dragon film into something young women would actually want to watch, but aside from a couple of decent kills and some almost plausible world-building by the director this is an entirely forgettable affair.

Written by Dan Mazeau, who claims Wrath of the Titans and Fast X as other screen credits, Damsel strains credulity by turning everything in this film into a near-miss approximation of what a dark-edged fairy story could have been. The film apes Maleficent’s edgy, grittier Once Upon A Time aesthetic but doesn’t really do much with it, aside from a couple of minor early moments that creep one out (a boat ride into the Kingdom of Aurea is a lot more chilling than the kingdom itself, for example) and this nearly-nearly approach by director Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) feels too lacking in full-throated go-for-it style to really work. It’s Game of Thrones-adjacent, although the allusions are evident in nearly every frame, but scaled back for a far more PG audience than HBO would ever permit. I mentioned Dragonheart earlier on, and it’s fair to suggest that Damsel could be considered a thematic sequel of sorts to the Dennis Quaid flick if only for the star power of a powerful, snakelike dragon dominating much of the screen time. Thankfully, Brown and Winstone use their British accents to the fullest degree (while poor Angel Bassett cannot convince me she’s ever stepped foot inside the UK with whatever Upstairs/Downstairs buffonery she was going with), although Robin Wright, who delivers a truly hateworthy performance as the odious Queen of Aurea, steals much of the film right out from under her younger leading lady.

The visual effects are generally pretty decent, although the dragon and some of the more “magical” aspects of the film tend to feel a touch hokey, but on the whole there’s some solid entertainment between stunt work, action sequences and CG artifice to be had here. Some of the pacing is iffy, and the tone of the film never clicks correctly with what’s being spoken and done; there’s no real buildup of menace, or sense of heroism or vengeance at key stages of the film, leaving a rather inert climax inserted between fist-pumping euphoria and “wait, that’s it?” downbeats to sell the story as best it can. Fresnadillo’s work on 28 Weeks Later taught us that the man knows how to build tension and generate an emotion from the audience, but this paycheck collection deal he’s done with Netflix is a real deflationary besmirching of his talents, and offers little real emotional heft anywhere here. It’s as generic a period-piece action flick as there’s ever been – hence my mention of The Musketeer at the top.

Damsel is a curiosity only, and a film destined to remain locked in the perennial purgatory of Netflix’ vast catalogue of loss-leading “content”. It does almost no-one in it any favours, and further sullies Millie Bobby Brown’s post-Stranger Things potential by wasting her in a film so blighted by mediocrity I’m sure in six months nobody will remember it. For a fun adventure whiling away an hour or so on an inside day, Damsel may satisfy some, but only really solidifies the thinking that appearing on Netflix isn’t the win you expect it to be. Dumb, silly nonsense similar to 2022’s The Princess, Netflix’ Damsel is pointless nonsense offering nothing but pouting period performative perplexity in amounts too small to consider enjoyable.

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