The year is 1684. The place, France. The king, Pierce Brosnan.
This is probably not a French historical fact of which we've previously been unaware. But that is definitely the onetime James Bond swanning around in velvet and ruffles and windblown slo-mo hair to play Louis XIV in The King's Daughter. He's not bad, either, although he may in future years look back with regret at the mincing, hand-on-hip gait he employed for the role. But then this is a man who dared to sing "S.O.S." in one of those ABBA movies, so he's clearly a hardy star.
Considering the film's cast (Brosnan, William Hurt, Kaya Scodelario, Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing) and its probable CGI costs (even though much of the budget was covered by Chinese production companies), it's odd that The King's Daughter is debuting in the joyless wastes of January. (The picture was shot in 2014 and quickly strangled in its crib, for various movie-biz reasons and maybe the 2018 decision by the Chinese government to come down hard on Fan for major tax fraud). In any case, here it finally is.
It's not really a bad movie, but it may seem insupportably silly to anyone unaware of its source material—a fantasy novel by Vonda N. McIntyre that beat out George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones for a 1997 Nebula Award. So potential viewers should be prepared to accept a picture in which Louis XIV is not only played by Brosnan, but also owns a mermaid (Fan)—a creature he's had kidnapped from the once-lost city of Atlantis. He's done this because mermaids are said by "the books" to have the power to perpetuate human lifespans; Louis, having recently been the object of an assassination attempt, now wants to extend his already 40-year reign to…well, infinity.
Meanwhile, the king also has an unacknowledged daughter tucked away with cranky nuns in a remote coastal convent. The girl's name is Marie-Josephe (Scodelario), and as you'd expect, she's a spunky little gal. Louis has never laid eyes on her before, but now he's brought her to the Palace of Versailles for a festival marking an imminent lunar eclipse—the only time when a mermaid can be killed in order to harness its power. (Again, "the books.") But as you might expect (or probably know for dead certain), Marie-Josephe meets the captured mermaid in her prison grotto and they bond. Determined to free the miraculous creature, she lobbies her skeptical father, wins the support of both his avuncular confessor (William Hurt) and a dreamy royal sea captain named Yves (Benjamin Walker), and does her darndest to fend off the odious palace doctor, Labarthe (the wonderfully repellent Pablo Schreiber).
Given all the effort that was put into the film (glittery location shooting inside and outside the actual Palace of Versailles couldn't have been an easy go to get), it's too bad the movie is so short on excitement. The story is both too off-the-wall and too run-of-the-mill to become substantially invested in, and while the underwater and sea-going effects are elaborate, at this point, nearly eight years after the movie was made, they're underwhelming. The dialogue is sometimes irritating, too: Did people in the 17th Century say things like "You all right?" and "I was just kidding"? I think we can allow that one of Brosnan's lines—"I'm a king, you know"—was a little joke. Wish we could be more certain of that, though.