3 out of 5 stars

The Marsh King’s Daughter opens with an idyllic underwater journey through a forest stream where we find 12-year-old Helena (Brooklynn Prince) blissfully afloat, her face dotted with tattoos. But the dream ends when her father, Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn), gently pulls her back to dry land for another lesson in wilderness survival. 

Deep within the secluded forests of Upper Michigan (recreated in the wilds of Ontario, Canada), Helena and her parents forge an existence reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe’s, nestled in a rustic log cabin far removed from the trappings of modern society. Helena, homeschooled by her father, has mastered the art of survival, adept at hunting, trapping, and fishing. Her hand-stitched garments exude an air of rugged practicality, complemented by intricate tattoos etched by her father’s hand, a symbolic mark of possession. Yet, this idyllic tableau is marred by Helena’s distant, taciturn—and unnamed—mother (Caren Pistorius), whose attempts to discipline Helena prove futile in the face of the unbreakable bond between father and daughter.

Helena’s life in the secluded forest seemed idyllic, a paradise where she wanted for nothing. But the illusion was shattered when Jacob’s benevolent façade crumbled. In a chilling act of violence, he mercilessly gunned down Joshua Peace, an unsuspecting explorer who stumbled upon their hidden sanctuary. Helena’s mother, acting with a desperation born of fear and maternal instinct, commandeered an all-terrain vehicle and forcefully dragged Helena away from the only life she had ever known. Their destination: the harsh reality of civilization, a world Helena had only glimpsed from afar.

Seeking refuge in a police station, Helena’s mother finally revealed the harrowing truth that had been kept hidden for so long: their idyllic existence was a cruel façade. They weren’t Jacob’s family, but his captives, prisoners held against their will. 12 years ago, Jacob had abducted Helena’s mother, forcibly carrying her off to his secluded domain, and Helena, the product of a brutal assault, was a constant reminder of that dark chapter.

Overwhelmed by the shattering revelation and her abrupt expulsion from her perceived paradise, Helena finds herself unable to cope. Desperate for solace, she slips out of the police station under the cloak of darkness, seeking refuge with her father, who remains hidden nearby. However, their escape attempt is thwarted by the diligent police force, led by the formidable Sheriff Clark (the ever-dependable Gil Birmingham), who effectively brings an end to their clandestine plans.

In a poignant montage that deftly captures the passage of two decades, we witness Helena’s gradual assimilation into the fabric of modern society. Now portrayed by Daisy Ridley, Helena has seemingly effortlessly embraced a life of quiet normalcy, shedding her past like a worn-out cloak. She’s meticulously constructed a new identity, cloaking her tumultuous past in a veil of secrecy, shielding herself from the scrutiny of her husband, Stephen (Garrett Hedlund), and their daughter, Marigold (Joey Carson). Only Sheriff Clark, the man who took her in, remains the keeper of her true story. The only visible traces of her former life are the intricate tattoos adorning her body, which she casually dismisses as mementoes of a wild youth spent in San Francisco. Her inherent kindness and genuine warmth disarm any suspicions, leaving her story unquestioned.

Her past, long thought buried, resurfaces with Papa Jacob’s sensational and violent escape from prison. The FBI’s arrival shatters her carefully constructed façade, threatening her marriage and exposing her hidden truths. Meanwhile, Jacob, a cunning and manipulative predator, lurks in the shadows, plotting to snatch his estranged daughter and granddaughter and drag them into his isolated survivalist haven. In this desolate realm, father and daughter will confront their tumultuous past and engage in a desperate struggle for survival.

The Marsh King’s Daughter initially promises to be a captivating outdoor thriller, deftly intertwining themes of a lost childhood paradise, strained father-daughter dynamics, the lasting imprint of parental abuse, the enduring power of dreams amidst harsh realities, and the stark contrast between civilization and the untamed wilderness, where even the most enchanting landscapes can harbour darkness.

Visually, The Marsh King’s Daughter is a feast for the eyes, thanks to Neil Burger’s masterful direction and Alwin H. Küchlar’s stunning cinematography. The endless forests, bathed in an ethereal glow, stretch out like a vast, impenetrable labyrinth, while the perpetually overcast skies cast a pall over the landscape, hinting at the lurking menace and danger that pervades this unforgiving wilderness.

While Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith’s screen adaptation of Karen Dionne’s novel effectively captures the suspenseful atmosphere of the story, it ultimately sacrifices depth for a conventional thriller conclusion. The abrupt dismissal of crucial themes, along with the disappearance of a key character, leaves audiences feeling unsatisfied.

The climax, while skillfully executed and undeniably thrilling, featuring a dramatic tumble down a treacherous riverbank, falls short of delivering the emotional impact that the preceding narrative had promised. The resolution feels as shallow and lifeless as the marshy wilderness that engulfs the characters, failing to leave a lasting impression on either the heart or the mind.

Helena and Jacob’s characters start out fascinating with their volatile dynamic, transitioning from mutual love to mutual hatred. However, their transformation into action thriller archetypes ultimately reduces their complexity. Mendelsohn’s portrayal of Jacob’s initial charm effectively masks his later descent into a predictable misogynistic survivalist. The absence of insights into Jacob’s motivations or the roots of his obsession leaves him confined to the realm of a one-dimensional movie villain.

Daisy Ridley delivers a compelling performance as Helena, seamlessly transitioning from her comfortable domestic life into a cunning and empowered force. However, in its haste to maintain a thrilling pace, the script confines Helena to a superficial portrayal. Helena should be a deeply conflicted woman, torn between love for the world she grew up in and the lessons it taught her on the one hand, and fear and loathing of her father on the other. She remains unreachable, giving not even a backward glance as she makes her way back to civilization. Few of us let go of our childhood that easily, no matter its darkest corners.


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Cast & Crew

director: Neil Burger.
writers: Elle Smith & Mark L. Smith (based on the novel by Karen Dionne).
starring: Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklyn Prince & Gil Birmingham.