It’s hard work being a high fantasy film. In the wake of Game of Thrones, and even the critical and commercial success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago, the bar is set so high that most movies don’t even reach it. Most aim for a particular facet of the bar – an interesting twist on the genre, a particularly strong cast of characters, or a particularly imaginative universe.
Based on the first book in the bestselling Danish fantasy children’s series “The Shamer Chronicles”, The Shamer’s Daughter doesn’t really do any of those things. It might satisfy genre purists, but its a fairly by-the-book, dungeons-and-dragons fantasy. It’s a bit dull, if technically quite beautiful – Scandinavia is and always will be an excellent location for swordplay and magic. The area where it does shine, though, is in depicting both a male and female protagonist who sit directly opposite the spaces where men and women typically occupy in fantasy.
Young Dina (Rebecca Emilie Sattrup) and her mother (Maria Bonnevie) are “Shamers” – born with the ability to look into a person’s eyes and make them feel shame for the terrible things they’ve done. When Dina’s mother is called to the castle to determine if the sole heir to the throne, Nicodemus (Jakob Oftebro), is responsible for the gruesome murder of his family, Dina and her mother are drawn into a web of corruption. It’s apparent Nico is being falsely accused so that his position can be usurped by next-in-line Drakan (Peter Plaugborg), and after being imprisoned for refusing to use her power for evil, Dina must fight back, save her mother and restore the rightful heir.
While the premise does seem neat and unique, in practice, it’s a little hokey. There’s magic and dungeons, lots of horseback riding and dragons. The antagonist is fairly one-dimensional, and the acting’s not great. I couldn’t help but feel as though these characters were probably more interesting and fleshed-out in the novels, because we get glimpses of promise. There’s no central love interest – while Dina and Nico establish a strong bond, it’s of mutual respect, not romance. Dina is the type of female children’s novel heroine we’ve thankfully seen a lot more in fantasy of since books like The Golden Compass. Tough, headstrong, a bit stubborn and obstinate, but with a good heart, she’s a strong female character who is, most importantly, flawed. The film touches on the idea that knowledge can be both a gift and a curse, and Dina learns this when she eventually realizes that it’s just as important to understand the reasons why people do bad things as it is to accuse them.
Nico, conversely, is an interesting male character who reverses male hero tropes. He’s bullied and shamed for having no interest in fighting, and is accused of being cowardly, because he actually is. Rather than stick to the “sensitive, misunderstood hero” trope, Nico is realistically flawed as well. By giving its central protagonists a narrative arc that allows them to grow and become better people, The Shamer’s Daughter elevates itself, at least a little, above sameness.
The 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival runs from July 14 to August 15, 2015. For more coverage of the festival click here.