Mission of Mercy
Movies don't quite know what to make of pornography. Comedies mine the subject for material all the time, and dramas tend to be revenge sagas that fall just short of sermonizing. So the animated Danish film Princess has a tricky job to do, succeeding mostly because it never condescends. The film doesn't pretend that porn being bad is a foreign concept, nor does it stake a claim amid the moral high ground. Princess is a tragedy cast in the most classic of molds, in which both its viewers and characters are confronted with the personal price of seeking vengeance.
Once upon a time, August (voice of Thure Lindhardt) left home to preach the Good Word overseas. His sister Christina (voice of Stine Fischer Christensen) declined to join, opting instead for a flourishing career as a porn starlet named Princess. But Christina has met an unfortunate end, beckoning August back home to take care of her daughter, Mia (voice of Mira Hilli Moller Hallund). To spare the little one a similarly seedy fate, August resolves to eliminate all traces of his sister's life as Princess (and, if need be, by brute force). Of course, her employers aren't so eager to give up such a lucrative piece of their empire, though their efforts to strike back only further enrage the one-man army August has become.
Admittedly, Princess lugs around a pretty paint-by-numbers structure. The path from wreaking bloody havoc to "What have I done?" ephiphany hasn't deviated much over the years -- but then again, where else is there to go? It comes with the territory, and Princess shows that, done right, such themes can ring as strongly as they ever have. From its crude animation to its touchy subject matter, Princess announces quite early that it has no intentions of being loved. It's here to rub our faces in society's mess, not to be cooed over by Pixar enthusiasts. Though a brazen attitude is one thing, director Anders Morgenthaler sweetens the deal with the story's well-rounded presentation. Morgenthaler handles this most disquieting descent into the porn biz with equal parts action, drama, and even dark humor, all delivered in balanced and effective doses. Enough is done to keep things lively without sacrificing the story's dramatic edge.
While the movie doesn't shy away from graphic imagery (both sexual and violent), the humanity within Princess becomes its greatest asset. Scenes in which August tries bonding with Mia are as powerful as those in which he goes berzerk on some lowlife. Morgenthaler also makes clever use of his religious angle: God not only seems to condone August's rampage, He even helps out a bit. Live-action footage is included to provide glimpses of both happier times and those warning signs which led to Christina's downfall (some of which August himself takes responsiblity for). It's a story that could have been told in the flesh, though certain content would incur a lifetime of lawsuits. The voice acting isn't extraordinary, but the cast gets the job done; if anyone, Hallund deserves extra credit for being neither too gruff nor too precocious as the wounded Mia.
Because Princess grounds itself in grittiness so well, those parts where its fantasy flag flies don't register as well as they should. But while Morgenthaler's point is made rather abruptly, he at least arrives at one while others continue searching long after the final credits. Those impressed in recent years by Chan-wook Park's revenge pictures would do well to check out Princess, an ungainly work -- but one possessing a more lasting wallop than one usually receives.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Tartan; not rated by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.passportcinema.com .