As a child, I loved stories about girls with swords. As an adult, I write about the purposes of stories about girls with swords. So, it’s in no uncertain terms that I say I would’ve absolutely adored this film as a pre-teen, caught on the boundary of immersion and study. For those not so interested in the meaning of fairy tales and feel like you may have seen one too many Cinderella adaptations (I really think we’ve had enough, guys), don’t turn away just yet. The Princess is like Die Hard: Fairy Tale Edition, with a little bit of Ready or Not and some sprinklings of a Legend of Zelda dungeon added for good measure.
Waking up in the castle’s tallest tower in a white gown and chains, we meet Joey King’s Princess, a feisty, take-no-nonsense (literally) monarch-in-the-making. Having run away from her prince (Dominic Cooper) at the altar, she discovers her not-so-beloved betrothed has taken the rejection rather badly and has conquered her home. Witnessing her family and people held hostage a perilous distance below her, the Princess must fight her way down an intimidating number of floors filled with soldiers, brutes and buffoons to reach the bottom and reclaim her freedom and throne.
While it’s a bit plasticky on the surface – the sets and costumes often look like a Disneyland ride mimicking King Arthur, Robin Hood, or possibly The Witcher (it does help to choose some sort of historical point for inspiration, but maybe not twenty) – director Le-Van Kiet makes plenty of subtle changes to the classic Disney princess story that defines and designates this film as a contemporary understanding of ‘the princess saves herself.’ King’s princess hasn’t been sold off for marriage, nor is she mainly rebelling against her family’s wishes when she learns to sword fight under the tutelage of Linh (Veronica Ngo). That’s just who she is, and until leaving evil prince Julius jilted at the altar, no one seems to have much of a problem with it. And those combat lessons come in particularly handy as it happens.
What makes this film exciting both on the screen and in principle is the apparent influence of Kiet’s love of action thrillers. Like his feature Furie, a Vietnamese indie about a female debt collector whose daughter is kidnapped by a trafficking ring (Ngo brings to life another badass heroine of Kiet’s as the princess’s teacher and ally Linh here), the director delivers another film about a woman done wrong and ready to make it right herself. The choreography is dynamic and fun, and it seems like King does much of it herself. She flips over tables, skids along the floor, falls, jumps, slashes, lunges, and yells and groans. Yes, please, and thank you for a fairy tale film with blood and gore and the consequences of breaking your thumb to get out of handcuffs that seem intentionally marketed to a younger teenage audience.
While King is prone to overdoing her performance just a little (her lines sometimes skirt the edges of drama school theatre troop), she also has moments of pure brilliance. This duality makes following the development of her craft throughout her filmography genuinely fascinating. It’s a shame that The Princess relies too much on flashbacks and exposition when King can communicate her character’s emotional journey through her face. But nevertheless, this is not a film about a girl learning to be in charge of her own story – King’s Princess has that down from the first two minutes – it’s about her battling with the consequences, the physical pain of punching and kicking and biting and chasing, the exhaustion of being the only one running and screaming, and the real opinions that really do obstacles in your way.
It’s fair to say that the pieces of the film don’t all fit together smoothly – but it would be an injustice to say that the pieces themselves aren’t done right. It’s a story somewhat at the mercy of its budget, but one that celebrates sisterhood, ambition and centuries of fairy tales about women finding a way to escape their perils. In the final act, Linh takes the Princess and her little sister (who has just narrowly escaped the fanatical prince) to an underground store full of weapons. There are rows and rows of swords and daggers; the walls are covered with shields and spears. ‘Let’s get you ready,’ she says to them both. And what are fairytales, if not that? Getting us ready for battle!
The Princess is available on Hulu now
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Films, Reviews
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