Adapted from the 1997 historical fantasy novel “The Moon and the Sun” by Vonda N. McIntyre, “The King’s Daughter,” starring Pierce Brosnan and Kaya Scodelario, dares to pose the question: “What if King Louis XIV of France met a mermaid?”
If you’re unfamiliar with the source material, which sprinkles elements of fantasy and sci-fi into real historical events, the introductory text — explaining that, in 1684, Louis XIV has ordered an exploratory mission to the mythical undersea lost city of Atlantis — hits like a bucket of cold seawater to the face.
Directed by Sean McNamara and written by Barry Berman and James Schamus, “The King’s Daughter” starts at an 11 on the bonkers scale and, unfortunately, there’s nowhere to go from there but down.
Brosnan’s take on Louis XIV is a velvet-clad, swashbuckling royal with a magnificent mane and plenty of eyeliner, a sort of modernist musketeer type. After a scare with a pistol-wielding peasant, he decides to take up his evil Dr. Labarthe (Pablo Schreiber) on his suggestion to capture a mermaid and sacrifice her during a solar eclipse in hopes of harnessing magical healing powers, as one does. This decision comes at the dismay of his priest and adviser Pere La Chaise (William Hurt).
Meanwhile, the king has his headstrong secret daughter, Marie-Josephe (Scodelario), plucked from a convent where he’s stashed her since childhood, and where she’s driving the nuns mad with all of her wanton ocean swimming.
How do you solve a problem like Marie-Josephe? Bring her to Versailles under the ruse that she’s his new composer. Once on the grounds of the sprawling château, the carefree, water-loving Marie-Josephe hears the plaintive song of the captive mermaid (a heavily CGI’d Fan Bingbing), kept in an aquatic dungeon guarded by a dashing sea captain, Yves De La Croix (Benjamin Walker).
As Marie-Josephe bonds with her new mer-friend, she falls in love with the captain, discovers her royal heritage, gets promised to a politically ambitious duke (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and sets out to save her new pal from ritual murder.
“The King’s Daughter” is a film where things just keep happening and, no matter how incredible, fantastical or banal, they’re barely remarked upon by the characters, all of whom seem to be running around in circles. The plot proceeds at a punishing clip, but there’s a tediousness to the proceedings, even at a rather tight 97 minutes, because no dramatic weight is given to anything that unfolds. Talk to a mermaid? Sure. Kiss a sea captain? Great. Smash a viola in the courtyard? Fine. If it’s fantasy they’re serving, give us some awe on the side, please.
Confined to Versailles, which looks mostly computer-generated, there’s very little actual adventure here. There’s no sense of space, texture, time or depth of field in the shallow images; it all feels like everyone is walking around on a half-built set in front of massive green screens, Versailles cut and pasted into the background.
The pace and performances may be breathless, but the film is airless and dull with no sense of narrative heft, or a clear idea of what it wants to be. Quasi-anachronistic costumes suggest budgetary restraints rather than cheeky modernist nods in the style of “Bridgerton” or “Marie Antoinette.” It feels neither historical nor fantastical, and the seams on this thing are distressingly apparent.
Once one realizes that it was shot eight years ago (yes, this is an Obama-era production), before being shelved for technical issues and sold off to other distributors, you can’t help but inspect it from that light, as an artifact from a very different time … a different time as in 2014, not Renaissance France.
What is obvious is that there’s no amount of time on the shelf or tinkering with the special effects that would have been enough to salvage the hot, chaotic and just plain kooky mess that is “The King’s Daughter.”