Damsel review | Princess vs dragon? Stranger things have happened

damsel review
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It’s Millie Bobby Brown versus dragon in Netflix’s dark fantasy adventure. Here’s our review of Damsel:

By pure coincidence, Damsel arrives on Netflix almost exactly a century after German director Fritz Lang introduced what was likely cinema’s first dragon in 1924’s Die Nibelungen. Lang and his collaborators brought their fearsome creature to life with a mixture of rubber, mechanical joints and puppetry (plus a bit of cocaine if one account is to be believed), and the result has a physical presence that is still captivating 100 years later.

In Damsel, director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos used CGI to create their dragon, but it still has plenty of weight, personality, and most importantly, menace. Unlike the gigantic winged beasts of, say, 1981’s Dragonslayer (which had terrific animation from Phil Tippett) or 2002’s Reign Of Fire, Damsel’s dragon is also relatively compact – it’s about the size of a grizzly bear, and a good deal more cunning than other big-screen lizards of its ilk.

All of which means Damsel’s critter is perfectly evolved to engage in the distinctly interior survival story screenwriter Dan Mazeau (who wrote the fantasies Wrath Of The Titans and Fast X) dreams up for rising star Millie Bobby Brown.

Refreshingly, in an era of genre films often stuffed with subplots, that story is a simple one. In a fantastical version of what looks vaguely like the 12th century, Princess Elodie (Brown) reluctantly agrees to an arranged marriage with the handsome prince of a far more moneyed island nation. Elodie’s own kingdom, ruled over by her father (Ray Winstone) and stepmother Lady Bayford (Angela Bassett) faces a harsh winter, and the royal family is so impoverished that it’s in the process of selling some soft furnishings to pay for food rations. 

Through a series of events we won’t spoil here (the trailer did that job for us, in fairness), Elodie winds up in a network of caves patrolled by the aforementioned dragon, which has a taste for young princesses. With no one to save her, Elodie is forced to use all her resolve and cunning to find her way back out again.

Previously the director of 28 Weeks Later and the flawed yet stylish 2011 horror Intruders, Fresnadillo has long displayed a talent for playing with light and shadow. The dark fantasy of Damsel allows Fresnadillo and his collaborators – including cinematographer Larry Fong – to bring texture and variety to what could have been a quiet samey location. Different parts of the dragon’s cave are bathed in contrasting pools of light; the presence of the beast is signalled through tilting, prowling camera angles. There are some impressive set-pieces including belches of lava-like flame and brittle walls made of crystal.

Following a Disney fairytale opening, it’s possible to sense more than a hint of glee as Damsel tips over into Del Toro-esque horror; although light on gore, Fresnadillo leaves us in no doubt that Elodie’s in danger and that the injuries she sustains actually hurt.

As a story, then, Damsel is heavily driven by its design and action, but make no mistake: this is above all a vehicle for Millie Bobby Brown, who since her breakout role in Stranger Things has become to Netflix what, say, Joan Crawford was to MGM under the old studio star system.

Read more: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo interview | Damsel, fear, family, and designing a scary dragon

She carries Damsel well, too, particularly when it comes to the physical stuff – whether she’s fractiously edging her way through caverns or wielding a heavy-looking sword, Brown acquits herself well in what could be described as her first proper, grown-up action film role. Angela Bassett and Ray Winstone are enjoyable in smaller parts, and Robin Wright, as the haughtily dismissive Queen Isabelle, is a fun counterpoint to her more kindly turn in The Princess Bride.

Everyone involved seems to know that Damsel’s princess-versus-dragon princess is what Netflix viewers have logged in to see, though, and on that front, the film delivers in economical, ruthlessly efficient fashion.

If there’s any justice, it’ll lead to more work for Fresnadillo – incredibly, this is only his fourth feature in a career stretching back over 20 years – and more action-adventure roles for Millie Bobby Brown. Patrick Tatopoulos’ cool dragon probably also deserves its own spin-off. Happy 100th birthday, dragons of cinema.

Damsel is streaming now on Netflix.

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