The Marsh King’s Daughter is a solid drama with psychological themes but it ultimately falls short of being an intense thriller that’ll have you on the edge of your seat.
The Marsh King’s Daughter, starring Ben Mendelsohn (Secret Invasion) and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), is an intriguing story about the complexities of understanding family, identity, and the haunting legacy of a traumatic past. It’s based on the book of the same name by Karen Dionne, a #1 international bestselling psychological suspense novel. While the story itself is indeed captivating with the potential for major thrills and showdowns, The Marsh King’s Daughter is ultimately a heavy drama that focuses more on the effects of psychological trauma than it does on thrilling scenarios full of paranoia and action that’ll have you on the edge of your seat.
The Marsh King’s Daughter follows the life and story of Helena Pelletier (Ridley), a seemingly well-put-together wife and mother harboring a huge secret: Her father is Jacob Holbrook (Mendelsohn), the notorious “Marsh King,” convicted child kidnapper and rapist.
For 12 years, Helena lived in a settler’s cabin in the middle of Northern Michigan with her mother and father. As The Marsh King’s Daughter opens, we get a glimpse into Jacob and Helena’s relationship: He’s a loving father who protects, educates, and takes care of his daughter. Ironically, it is he who teaches her the importance of survival, guiding her on how to survive anything. Helena’s relationship with her father is much closer than with that of her mother, who is very distant, depressed, defensive, and detached.
One day, when Jacob goes out on a two-day trek “to get supplies,” a guy shows up on a four-wheeler asking for directions, saying he’s lost. Helena stares at the four-wheeler with curiosity and bewilderment, having never seen any type of vehicle before. Her mother, in shock, charges the man and starts screaming, “Hurry! Get us out of here before he comes back!” Hearing the noise, Jacob returns and shoots the lost guy, just as Helena’s mother grabs her, and they escape from Jacob before he can reach them. It was on this day, at 12 years old, Helena learned the truth about who she is and who her father is: He kidnapped her mother when she was 13, raped her, and held her captive 12 years. Helena is the product of that relationship.
Now married with a child of her own, Helena has made great efforts to hide any connection to her Holbrook heritage and try to erase it from her mind—that is, until her father, a master manipulator, escapes federal custody while being transferred to a new facility. With him on the loose, Helena’s true identity and perfect life are threatened when the FBI show up at her house looking for Holbrook.
With her identity exposed, Helena must now face the truth of her psychological trauma and figure out how to reconcile her feelings of loving the man she once knew as her father and protector with her feelings of awareness about the truth that he’s dangerous, manipulative, and authoritarian. Wrestling with these feelings, Helena begins experiencing paranoia about her father hunting her and her daughter, Marigold (Joey Carson, of House of Chains), so she takes matters into her own hands and goes to hunt Jacob.
Holbrook’s escape from prison incites a hunt for the past and begins to form doubts about its truths while slowly building paranoia as two sides of the same story begin to emerge. However, The Marsh King’s Daughter falls short in allowing the narrative to drive any suspense, thrills, and emotion, and instead relies on its editing, cinematography, and soundtrack to carry climactic moments.
While The Marsh King’s Daughter portrays some interesting perspectives through key messages, it’s very slow moving. Any moments of excitement/anticipation/should-be thrills are brief. The film’s focus is more on Helena and her efforts to reconcile her past with her present and less on any paranoia and danger that should surround a situation of this kind. I haven’t read the book it’s based on, but something tells me it plays out in the reader’s mind much better than the film plays out in viewer’s eyes.
Ridley and Mendelsohn deliver excellent performances, but given their abilities, those performances seem a little lackluster, somewhat contained. Ridley displays high levels of intelligence and empathy in what her character is going through, but I felt she kept those deep emotions that accompany trauma hidden and confined. Mendelsohn, by the same token, delivers an eerie air of mysterious confidence contained by a father’s love for his daughter, but that air is subsequently tainted by his criminal tendencies. I felt here both talents were sorely under-utilized given their high-level talent.
That being said, I have to give mad props to the camera and editing crews. The Marsh King’s Daughter is riddled with gorgeously shot scenes through delicate camera techniques that really help drive what a viewer should be feeling throughout this story. The movie is entirely shot in rugged areas of Ontario, Canada, and the marsh scenes are absolutely stunning, filmed with artistic beauty and finesse.
The Marsh King’s Daughter had the potential to deliver something greater but because it’s a literary adaptation, I imagine the script was limited in original writings. Ultimately, the film is about the effects of physical and psychological abuse, as it really works to emphasize the emotional terror of children and adolescents as mirrored in an adult life that oscillates between conflicting views and feelings. It also denounces a form of abusive relationship and its consequences.
In the end, though, the script struggles with some structural problems, and it never fully explains how or why Mendelsohn’s character is called “The Marsh King”. Obviously, he knows the marsh like the back of his hand, but the film implies something deeper and more sinister to the moniker but never addresses it. The best stuff in the movie, by far, happens in the first quarter and last quarter of the story—more so the first. The Marsh King’s Daughter really struggles all throughout the middle to keep the story going and the viewers hooked and at times has us feeling like the actors are waiting on the plot to tell them what to do next or how much to emote. In fact, most of Helena’s journey is full of waiting … hesitation—a theme that we see appear early in her life as she hesitates to take action while hunting and misses opportunities.
Overall, The Marsh King’s Daughter works better as a heavy drama with a dab of suspense as opposed to an intense, psychological thriller with a message that there’s nothing more pure than the instinct to survive.
The Marsh King’s Daughter will be released in US theaters on November 3, 2023.