‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’ movie review: Invested performance cannot save this undernourished thriller

‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’ movie review: Invested performance cannot save this undernourished thriller
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Daisy Ridley in a still from ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’
| Photo Credit: Lionsgate Movies

If you haven’t read Karen Dionne’s 2017 novel The Marsh King’s Daughter, you can still guess how its film adaptation, directed by Neil Burger, will largely pan out. Yet even this predictability and the thinly woven narrative don’t necessarily render it a dull thriller; the premise of Dionne’s story (adapted to the screen by Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith), with the help of some invested performances and Alwin H. Küchler’s visuals, organically infuses an air of dread that somehow keeps it all afloat, gluing you to the screen until the disappointing final stretch.

Living in an isolated cabin in a marshland, Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn) raises his 10-year-old daughter Helena (Brooklynn Prince) as a hunter and teaches her all that he knows about surviving in the forest. Helena loves her father to the moon, but not so much her mother, Beth (Caren Pistorius), who Jacob says has gone mad and cannot see the “happiness” of the beautiful life they are leading. Jacob demands Helena to be stone-cold when it comes to saving their family, by which we are assured of the darkness within Jacob, something hinted at earlier when the stern instructor guilt-trips and punishes Helena for missing a catch. Or when he brands her skin with marks for her accomplishments and failures.

One fateful day, Beth sees a window of opportunity, knocks out Helena and steals off to civilization—specifically, to Clark Bekkum’s (Gil Birmingham) police station, where we learn that Jacob had abducted Beth years ago, with Helena’s birth and safety further chaining her to the cabin. Jacob is thankfully captured by the police but he promises Helena to come back for her one day, a promise she would later hope he hadn’t made when she grows up to realise the horrors of the infamous ‘Marsh King’.

The Marsh King’s Daughter (English)

Director: Neil Burger

Cast: Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince, and Gil Birmingham

Runtime: 108 minutes

Storyline: A young woman has to save her family when her imprisoned father — who had infamously kidnapped her mother in the woods before she was born — breaks out of prison and haunts her

In the present day, Helena (Daisy Ridley) lives the quiet suburban life with her husband Stephen (Garrett Hedlund) and her daughter Marigold (Joey Carson), neither of them aware of her being the Marsh King’s daughter. She works at an accountancy firm, hides her scars with makeup, and when memories of her past rush back, heads off for a swim in a nearby stream in the dead of the night. All of this changes when she finds out that her father has escaped prison and that he might harm her family.

Up until here, the screenplay shows promise of becoming a character study of sorts, of a woman with the kind of mystical connection with the forest that such a childhood offers, but also a victim of trauma, the depths of which modern civilization cannot perceive. She is torn between the facts of what her father is told to be and the belief she has in the man she once knew. Sadly, however, the film is more focused on the suspense-thriller aspects in Helena taking on the very man who taught her how to survive, giving little space for exploration into her psyche.

Though the thriller tropes are dreadfully outdated, the overpowering antagonist in Jacob keeps you on your toes. Jacob is shown as this menacing figure but whenever he appears on screen, thanks to Mendelsohn’s restrained performance, you struggle to put him in a box. We know he wouldn’t harm Helena…but are we sure?

This is all the more frustrating when we realise how very little space is allotted to investigate his character. We are asked to make up our own stories about who Jacob was, how he became the Marsh King, and what forced him to become the animal he is, leaving no explanation for his actions later on in the film. The climax, the crescendo that the film hurries towards, ends up as a whimper as well. Neither the premise nor the actors — Mendelsohn, Ridley, Birmingham and Prince deliver invested performances — deserved such an underwritten screenplay.

The Marsh King’s Daughter is currently running in theatres

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