The Marsh King’s Daughter, 2023.
Directed by Neil Burger.
Starring Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince, Gil Birmingham, Joey Carson, Pamela MacDonald, Joshua Peace, and Dan Abramovici.
Helena, a woman living a seemingly ordinary life, hides a dark secret: her father is the infamous “Marsh King,” the man who kept her and her mother captive in the wilderness for years. After a lifetime of trying to escape her past, Helena is forced to face her demons when her father unexpectedly escapes from prison.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, The Marsh King’s Daughter wouldn’t exist.
Directed by Neil Burger (adapting Karen Dionne’s novel from a screenplay by Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith), The Marsh King’s Daughter is ludicrously dumb. This is a film where some of the most absurd, improbable events occur to push the plot in motion, including a time skip across roughly 20 years that conveniently abandons and kills a key character off-screen to set up the part about “a woman seeking revenge,” which is also vague and not entirely what this movie is actually about. Anyway, there is also a bit here where a prisoner is randomly transported for no reason, miraculously escaping the vehicle, only for it to be hardly ever brought up again because if the filmmakers had a gun to their heads and were forced to make this narrative makes sense or eat the bullet, the trigger would have immediately been pulled.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that the opening 15 minutes are relatively compelling and solid. The film opens with Ben Mendelsohn’s Jacob Holbrook, the titular Marsh King, a title given to him by unlikely characters because nothing makes sense here. He is depicted in a routine with his young daughter Helena (Brooklynn Prince), teaching her lessons about survival and hunting. She also has an assortment of tattoos, with each one carrying some symbolic meaning regarding her training and performance out in the wilderness. The mother (Caren Pistorius) is distant, gloomy, and disengaged with this lifestyle.
It also quickly occurs to us that the filmmakers have intentionally not given a time period or setting for the story, which further fuels the feeling that something is off despite the relationship between father and daughter seems fine on the surface. Nevertheless, a stranger gets lost and accidentally barrels into their lives, where some startling revelations unfold. Without giving too much away, the mother was forced to flee and run with Helena, escaping into civilization and finding sanctuary. There is also much detail and characterization to go over here, but The Marsh King’s Daughter is furiously in a rush to become a generic cat-and-mouse thriller, ignoring that Brooklynn Prince is one of the best child actors around (and one of the only redeeming aspects of this film), jumping ahead in time.
Helena is now played by Daisy, living a normal life married to Stephen (Garrett Hedlund) with a daughter named Marigold (Joey Carson). There are brief moments here and there, and small dynamics allowing Daisy Ridley to play up the concept of this woman now ingratiated into everyday society, who still feels displaced and as if that life of survival and hunting is where she belongs, even if it came with parental abuse and just isn’t how a child should be raised. Naturally, her emotions about her mother also evolve, even if it’s a little too late, and the sentiment of daughters and mothers seeing themselves reflected in one another feels half-baked.
Once the truth of her identity comes out, pushing her into a confrontation with her husband about who she really is and whether or not he still would have come to fall in love with her if he had known makes for solid drama. There is also an indigenous police officer (Gil Birmingham) who took it upon himself to look out for Helena, who also points out that a terrible person twisted aspects of his culture.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers have no interest in exploring any of these intriguing dynamics. Neil Burger is frantically racing across plot beats of The Marsh King’s Daughter to get to the showdown between mentor and student, father and daughter. While the entire sequence is competently staged, there is also a lack of urgency and suspense, eliciting the feeling that everyone here is going through the motions. Then again, the fumbling of the first major story reveal rendered everything going forward nonsensical and idiotic. It doesn’t take much of a survival instinct to sense that this should be avoided at all costs.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com