The Marsh King’s Daughter Review: An unlikely blend of “Hanna” and “Where the Crawdads Sing,” Neil Burger’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter” initially lures audiences with a title reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy or a fantastical adventure. However, the film, based on Karen Dionne’s 2017 novel, takes a sharp turn into the grounded realm of a psychological thriller, shedding its fantastical expectations.
The name itself hints at an ethereal tale, possibly involving princesses and talking creatures. In reality, Burger’s adaptation crafts a narrative deeply rooted in the psychological complexities of its characters, particularly Helena, the titular daughter.
Enchanted Childhood Turned Nightmare
The narrative unfolds in the breathtaking wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Helena (Brooklynn Prince and later Daisy Ridley) experiences what seems like a magical childhood. However, the illusion shatters when she discovers her father, Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn), is a demented survivalist who kidnapped her mother. The film artfully explores the dissonance between Helena’s fairy-tale upbringing and the harsh reality exposed by her father’s dark deeds.
Helena, played during the prologue by the talented Brooklynn Prince, thought she grew up in a fairy tale. Yet, everyone she encounters post-rescue insists she was raised in a nightmare. The self-divided struggle to reconcile these conflicting stories intensifies as Helena, now played by Daisy Ridley, grapples with her past as an office worker and a mother herself.
Helena’s Struggle in Adulthood
Fast forward to Helena’s adult life, where Daisy Ridley’s nuanced performance shines. As an office drone with a daughter of her own, Helena grapples with the psychological aftermath of her father’s actions. Ridley’s portrayal captures the internal conflict as Jacob escapes prison, igniting a struggle within Helena herself.
Ridley is a strong actress, capable of portraying capable women with complex family histories. Her flinty but implosive performance as Helena is compelling enough to lure “The Marsh King’s Daughter” away from schlock in favor of something more nuanced. Ridley is perfectly believable when the movie throws her character into action mode, but she truly excels during quieter moments when Helena struggles to figure out where she belongs.
Identity Crisis in the Marshlands
The film, suffering from an identity crisis similar to its protagonist, attempts to balance pulpy fun with a probing character study. Ridley’s compelling performance pulls the narrative away from schlock, offering glimpses of a potential lean and rugged action-thriller or a heightened domestic drama. However, the film falls short, lacking the substance to fully explore these avenues.
As Helena grapples with her past, the movie delves into the tawdry side of the “semi-feral white woman who needs to murder her way out of the wetlands” trope, drawing parallels to similar themes in recent works like “Where the Crawdads Sing.” The psychological depth promised by the source material struggles to emerge amidst the threadbare adaptation.
Despite Ridley’s versatility and Mendelsohn’s charismatic portrayal of Jacob, the film stumbles in delivering the anticipated showdown in the marshes. Burger struggles to sell the climactic confrontation, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the narrative. Jacob’s threat remains largely existential, and the film shies away from exploring complex dynamics, leaving several plot points unexplored.
The potential for a lean and rugged action-thriller or a semi-heightened domestic drama is evident, but the finished product becomes both and neither all at once. Ridley’s capability to embody a huntress raised by a human wolf and Mendelsohn’s ability to switch between menacing charisma and sympathetic weirdness could have been better utilized in a more focused narrative.
Conclusion: Adrift Between Fantasy and Reality
“The Marsh King’s Daughter” finds itself adrift between fantasy and reality, lacking the resolve to commit to a specific genre or the nuance to thrive in the space between. While hinting at underlying complexities in Helena’s character, the film falls short of bringing them to life. The narrative, like Helena herself, remains undefined, leaving viewers yearning for a more visceral and elemental experience.
As the marshland wilderness symbolizes the untamed aspects of Helena’s past, the film struggles to explore the depths of her character and the intergenerational dynamics at play. It’s a film caught between the allure of pulpy suspense and the desire for a more profound exploration of family, identity, and survival.