Film Review: The Marsh King’s Daughter
The Marsh King’s Daughter
Director: Neil Burger
Black Bear Pictures and Anonymous Content
In Theaters: 11.03
When an actor makes a big impression in a Star Wars movie, they tend to become so synonymous with it that stepping out of that shadow is a challenge. The Marsh King’s Daughter demonstrates that this is even more difficult when you have two Star Wars alumni in the same film.
Helena Petterier (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) enjoys a seemingly perfect life with her adoring husband Stephen (Garrett Hedlund, Triple Frontier) and daughter, Marigold (Joey Carson, House of Chains). Helena, however, is hiding a big secret: Her father, Jacob Holbrook (Ben Mendelsohn, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), is the notorious criminal known as “The Marsh King,” who kidnapped a young woman—Helena’s mother—and held her captive for 12 years in the marshes of the Tahquamenon River Valley until he was caught and imprisoned. When Jacob manages to escape prison and comes after Marigold, Helena must confront her hidden past and rely on the very survival skills that Jacob taught her in order to track him down.
Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent) tries hard to reel us in with ambience and mystery, though it all feels too campy to be taken seriously and too dark to be much fun. The opening section, set during Helena’s childhood, runs a bit long, though it sets up the character dynamic between Helena and Jacob well enough. The effort to keep the film under two hours ensures that we don’t get enough time spent on the life that Helena has attempted to settle into as an adult to care much about it. Helena’s choice to hide the truth from her husband until he’s sidelined with it upon Holbrook’s escape should be an interesting moment, yet Stephen is such an underwritten character that his reactions come across as oddly petulant. The final act is just barely suspenseful enough to play, though it leads up to a disappointing, stock “Hollywood hero/villain both reaching for the gun” moment that feels tacked-on.
Ridley struggles with making the exposition feel engaging, especially because she has to step into the role after it’s been played so well by one of the greatest child actors of our time, Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project) for nearly 30 minutes. The adult version of Helena is emotionally closed off, riddled with trust issues and self doubt and is surprisingly dull. Ridley’s star presence kicks into high gear once the movie finally settles on being a thriller, though, and she brings it home nicely. The same can’t be said for Mendelsohn, a strong actor who has simply played so many generic villains at this point (in movies ranging from Rogue One and Ready Player One to Robin Hood) that they are starting to run together. Mendelsohn never seems menacing enough to be truly scary, nor charismatic enough to sell the idea Helena connected far more with him than with her mother, and whenever he and Ridley are on screen together, I found myself waiting for more Disney-era Star Wars cast members to trickle in. Gil Birmingham (Under the Banner of Heaven, Yellowstone) lifts the film any time he’s on screen, playing Clark, a police officer who helped capture Holbrook and became a stepfather to Helena. Caren Pistorius (Unhinged) is quietly effective as Helena’s mother, a character who is so deliberately backgrounded that she’s never even given a name, and while it’s a motivated choice that is integral to the story, it still feels like even the movie itself is intent on mistreating her.
The Marsh King’s Daughter has just enough of junk-food, “true crime podcast” meets When The Crawdads Sing that it could have found an audience at the right time, and it probably will do so on streaming. Right now, however, just as the expensive blockbusters and Oscar bait films are taking over theaters, it doesn’t have what it takes to survive. –Patrick Gibbs