The royal court of Versailles can be a warm and bright haven for those upon whom “the Sun King” Louis XIV gazes with favour, but for Marie-Josèphe d’Alembert, an orphan raised in a convent whose musical talents have brought her unexpected attention, the golden halls and courtyards are a place of plotting and scheming which is foreign to her, a woman accustomed to order whose defiant nature must now be firmly reigned in, adopting an attitude circumspect in word and deed.
Her only ally Magali, the lady-in-waiting assigned to her, in the catacombs beneath the palace Marie-Josèphe finds something else, a sea creature regarded as an animal by the cold and ambitious Doctor Labarthe who intends to use its demonstrable powers of healing in a ritual intended to grant the king immortality but with which Marie-Josèphe is able to communicate, recognising it as possessed of a soul, appealing to Père François de la Chaise that to kill it would be murder.
The mermaid traditionally among the more familiar chimeras of mythology, a singular being composed of parts of two or more species, so was The Moon and the Sun, the Nebula award winning 1997 novel by Vonda N McIntyre, exploring her customary field of biology and its flexibility and adaptability but not through the genre of science fiction as with the hyperlight pilots of Superluminal or the enhanced divers of her Starfarers sequence but through the strange seas of historical fiction.
Expanded from her own short work The Natural History and Extinction of the People of the Sea, illustrated by her friend Ursula K Le Guin, it was unique in McIntyre’s career in that it was crafted simultaneously as both a novel and a screenplay, though it was a later and presumably vastly different version credited to writers Barry Berman and James Schamus which was shot by director Sean McNamara in 2014 for release the following year before being suddenly thrown into turbulent limbo for the almost a decade.
Starring Crawl‘s Kaya Scodelario’s as the naïve but headstrong Marie-Josèphe, The Rings of Power‘s Benjamin Walker as Yves De La Croix, the captain who captures the mermaid, and American God‘s Pablo Schreiber as Doctor Labarthe with Pierce Brosnan as Louis XIV and William Hurt in one of his final roles as Père La Chaise and partially filmed on location in Versailles The King’s Daughter does not lack talent or production value, yet it is not so much a chimera as a patched-together mongrel.
With costume design by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’s Lizzy Gardiner, the beautiful people who gossip amongst the gardens of the palace seem more like a French fashion catwalk, while the mermaid herself is less a convincing extrapolation of how such a creature would evolve in nature and inhabit the cold oceans than the attributes of a high velocity torpedo impractically bestowed with the fins of a tropical fish, an indistinct digital veil concealing Days of Future Past’s Fan Bingbing when the face of the performer herself would affirm Marie-Josèphe’s connection to the character.
Moving from the rigour of McIntyre’s brand of science fiction not to the looser approach of romantic fantasy but to outright fairy tales, opening with the pages of a book turning as Julie Andrew’s sugary narration evokes wide-eyed wonder, in the same way as Doctor Labarthe ignores questions about whether his proposed operation is scientific revolution or primitive sacrifice The King’s Daughter would prefer the viewer not to ask how the trip from Versailles to Le Havre on the coast, at least half a day on horseback, can be accomplished during the brief period of a solar eclipse.
The dialogue often trite and the threats superficial, Louis depicted as frivolous and vain rather than the true monster of Versailles behind the genial mask for his subjects, The King’s Daughter is ultimately less than the sum of its parts magnificent though some of them be, a concept which like Marie-Josèphe should have refused to compromise for the sake of acceptance, the cello and voice duet which first leads Marie-Josèphe to the underground pools more representative of what should have been than the three screeching overwrought power ballads which afflict the soundtrack.
The King’s Daughter is streaming now on Prime Video and other platforms