Netflix’s Damsel Is Sweaty, Snarly, Slithery Fun

Somewhere inside Damsel, Netflix’s new Millie Bobby Brown–starring medieval fantasy tale, is a performance of such sinewy contempt, fragility, and rage that it briefly threatens to upend the entire movie. That it comes from the great Iranian American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo shouldn’t surprise anyone. What might, though, is that she’s voicing a fire-breathing dragon, the monster that our heroine is supposed to be battling.

Our heroine, in this case, is Elodie (Brown), a young and headstrong noblewoman from a starving, impoverished land who has been betrothed to the handsome Prince Henry (Nick Robinson), heir to the throne of Aurea, a wealthy kingdom across the sea. Reluctant to marry but willing to do so to please her forlorn father (Ray Winstone) and save her people, Elodie gently accepts her fate, and Brown portrays the girl’s growing compliance with a mixture of faith and trepidation. We feel that she’s determined to make the most of her unfortunate situation, even though we can tell this whole marriage thing isn’t going to end well — especially after we witness the dismissive treatment Elodie’s stepmom (Angela Bassett!) receives at the hands of the haughty Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright!). Sure enough, on the day of the wedding, Elodie is tossed into a seemingly bottomless pit by her new husband, whereupon we learn that the kingdom of Aurea survives by sacrificing its princesses to a hungry dragon. Sweet and kind Elodie is merely the latest in a long line of marriageable young dupes.

Produced by Netflix, Damsel is being presented as a bold new take on the typical (and presumably patriarchal) fantasy narrative. “This is not a fairy tale” warns one of the film’s taglines. There’s also a novel, billed as “an epic twist on classic fantasy,” written by Evelyn Skye and based on Dan Mazeau’s screenplay, that came out last year, back when the movie was slated for a 2023 release. (The date was moved due to the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes.) Bravery credits for such girl-power revisionism probably expired some time ago – it’s been more than a decade since Frozen came out, and even Walt Disney himself poked gentle fun at the “love conquers all” formula 65 years ago – but still, it’s the thought that counts.

What does make Damsel interesting is not the tale itself but the tone with which it’s told. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later), who made his name as a horror filmmaker (and who somewhat shockingly doesn’t have a feature credit since 2011’s Intruders), is an effective visual storyteller who knows how to convey key information through images and performance. And once Elodie tumbles down that hole, Fresnadillo fully embraces his genre instincts. The most suspenseful parts of Damsel involve this girl desperately (and silently) scrambling and hiding around inside the dark cave network where she’s landed, cutting and burning herself and trying to piece together what happened to all the other girls cast into this abyss. It’s like The Princess Bride meets The Black Phone.

And then there’s that dragon, who adds layers of both suspense and sentiment to the story. At first, she slithers and spits with sadistic bile, taunting and toying with Elodie. Aided by impressive VFX work, Fresnadillo enhances the menace by making sure we never quite see the creature in full, at least not at first. (The dragon is like the shark in Jaws, albeit with more of an attitude.) Despite not having a ton of dialogue, Aghdashloo works wonders with her voice: We hear the sadness within her fury, a hint of resignation that makes us (and Elodie) curious as to what this beast’s story might be.

At times, I was reminded of Benedict Cumberbatch’s enchanting vocal performance as the preening Smaug in the second of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films (which, not coincidentally, was the only movie in that trilogy that wasn’t a complete waste of time). The actor’s rich baritone lent welcome shading to a genuine villain; Aghdashloo takes a standard-issue monster and gives it such depth that we can sense our allegiances shifting based solely on the timbre of her voice. It’s all part of the design: There’s more to this dragon than meets the eye, and what makes the back half of the film entertaining is precisely the uncertainty brought about by changing audience loyalties.

As for the always-talented Brown, one does wish at times that she had brought some of the playfulness of her Enola Holmes character to Elodie, whose breathless sincerity can at times feel one-note. But this is a new, grown-up challenge for the actress, and she mostly delivers a game, physical performance. More than a fantasy adventure, Damsel is a grisly and at times even touching tale of endurance and survival. It’s sweaty, snarly fun.

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