Netflix’s Damsel is a terrifying metaphor for marrying into the royal family

Prin-cesspit: Millie Bobby Brown as the put-upon royal-to-be in Netflix’s ‘Damsel’ (Netflix)
Prin-cesspit: Millie Bobby Brown as the put-upon royal-to-be in Netflix’s ‘Damsel’ (Netflix)

They may be royalty, but that doesn’t make them good people,” says Angela Bassett’s character, towards the end of the first act of Damsel. She’s speaking to her stepdaughter Elodie – the protagonist of the No 1 charting Netflix film, played stiffly by Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown – ahead of the latter’s arranged marriage to a wealthy prince. A few scenes later, Elodie’s new royal in-laws are sacrificially yeeting her into a dragon’s lair. “Not good people” is, in other words, a doozy of an understatement.

There’s a glaring, if superficial, irony to the fact that Damsel’s release coincides with a maelstrom of concern, confusion, and conspiracy-mongering over the whereabouts and wellbeing of the Princess of Wales. Even the wildest theory being promulgated about Kate’s present circumstances falls somewhat short of blaming a dragon, of course. But it’s an unfortunate coincidence, one that inevitably resonates. Because Damsel, for all its flaws as a piece of fantasy filmmaking, serves as a chilling and forthright metaphor for the dangers of marrying into royal stock.

To be clear, there’s nothing in the film to suggest that the murderously self-preserving Aurea family are in any way modelled on the Windsors. They are fictitious royals in a contrived fantasy world (though accent-wise, the so-called Queen’s English abounds). The head of the family, the hard-nosed Queen Isabelle played by Robin Wright, has no real-world analogue, nor does Elodie’s betrothed prince, played with a kind of resigned complicity by Nick Robinson. (Not that Nick Robinson, obviously.) And yet, there is much about Damsel that speaks to the real world. The perils of marrying into the royal family are well documented; one only need look at the testimonies of Princess Diana, or the current Duchess of Sussex, Meghan, for an idea of just how suffocating life within “The Firm” can be.

Indeed, for the first half hour of Damsel, it appears as if the dilemma being set up is one more in keeping with the real experiences of royal princesses-to-be. Elodie, an independent woman with a zeal for adventure, agrees to the marriage at the behest of her father (Ray Winstone) because the dowry will save her homeland from ruin. When she first arrives at the opulent castle home of the Aureas, we are led to believe that what she’s facing is an altogether plausible threat: the diminishing of personal freedom. She stands on her balcony, and makes eye contact with another woman, in a similar balcony opposite. After the two exchange smiles, this other woman is called away, being told “everybody’s waiting”. She is, it later turns out, a fellow victim of the royals’ dragon-feeding enterprise, one who suffers a grislier fate than Elodie. But here, before we learn this, the implication is more subtle. We know only that something is awry, that these two women in opposing balconies are caged with luxury, unable to move freely or communicate openly.

In a scene not long after, Bassett’s character attempts to broach the terms of her stepdaughter’s marriage with Queen Isabelle, only to be rebuffed and belittled. The real-world echoes here are obvious, mythological subterfuge notwithstanding: Bassett’s character, a rope-maker’s daughter who married above her station, is treated as some kind of unworthy outsider, shunned for her (relatively) proletarian background. Given everything Meghan and Prince Harry have claimed about her treatment from the British royal family, the scene is all too credible. That Bassett is a Black woman, while the royals are all white, adds, unspokenly, to this dynamic.

Damsel is no masterpiece. Cinema has given us better and richer explorations of what it’s like to be an outsider marrying into the royal family – you could do a lot worse than Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, which cast Kristen Stewart as an angst-ridden, desperately unhappy Diana. But there’s something to be said for the sheer bombastic allegory of Netflix’s film. Unlike Brown’s wronged, beleaguered hero, Meghan and Diana may not have been thrown to a dragon. And yet – in a sense – they were.

‘Damsel’ is available to stream now on Netflix