Synopsis: A woman with a secret past will venture into the wilderness she left behind to confront the most dangerous man she’s ever met: her father.
Stars: Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince, Gil Birmingham
Director: Neil Burger
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: At first glance, The Marsh King’s Daughter looks like a movie that should receive a wider release as we make the curve out of the early fall season into more wintery watch weather. It’s coming from a mid-sized studio (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions), a director with a respectable list of credits to his name (Neil Burger, Voyagers, Divergent), and a cast that, while not fully A-list, at least has developed a reputation for delivering quality performances. It’s also based on a widely praised international bestseller from 2017 which remains a popular read today.
Ah, but then you get a look at Burger’s film, adapted from Karen Dionne’s novel, and you begin to understand why it’s taken so long to get the movie out of development hell and into theaters for a limited release in the first place. Initially set to begin filming in 2019 with Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander in the title role, production stalled out and soon lost its star and director (The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum) before getting started again two years ago with Burger taking over directing with Daisy Ridley assuming leading lady responsibilities. Who knows what the Tyldum/Vikander version would have looked like or if it could have been any better, but as it stands now, The Marsh King’s Daughter is a soggy slog of a suspense drama.
I’m unsure where to draw the line on spoilers for the framework of Dionne’s mystery, so I’ll start by saying there’s an evident familiarity with what’s happening at the film’s beginning. Young Helena (Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project) lives a secluded life off the grid with her parents and is devoted to her father (Ben Mendelsohn, To Catch a Killer). This survivalist has been raising his daughter to fend for herself without emotion. Helena’s mother (Caren Pistorius, Unhinged) isn’t on the same page and is often excluded from the daddy/daughter exploits in the wilderness. A twist is revealed that separates the father from the two, and the film jumps ahead to an adult Helena (Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), now a mother with a family of her own.
Having put her time with her father behind her, when she receives news that he is likely coming back to look for her, memories of the past are drudged up. These memories provide greater context to the life she thought she was leading as a child and paint a different picture of the man she idolized and now fears. To protect her daughter and loved ones (including a totally wasted Garrett Hedlund, The United States vs. Billie Holiday), she’ll put the skills she was taught, that she never forgot, to the ultimate test as she comes face to face with the man who gave her everything she knows…and can anticipate her next move.
The first hour of The Marsh King’s Daughter is a snoozefest, a real languid exercise in a silly narrative construct that builds up this house of cards we can see will be knocked over by a Dramatic Turn of Events. Burger, who has displayed a verve for movies that have a simmering underlying energy, is off the mark on this outing, giving viewers nothing to build any dramatic weight off of. It’s only when Helena leaves the safety of her new life and ventures back to the one she left behind that the movie takes off, but by then, even intense work from Ridley and Mendelsohn can’t drag the proceedings back to solid ground.
Ultimately, I feel The Marsh King’s Daughter made for a good read but would never make anything other than an inert movie. Though screenwriters Mark L. Smith (Vacancy) and Elle Smith punch things up for the finale, that opening hour is so slow and uneventful you wonder what could have been done to save it. Even the production design feels barebones, though there are some nice cinematographic flourishes from Alwin H. Küchler along the way. If you are a fan of the book and want to see how the characters on the page look in motion, check this out. For all others, there are better places to travel than this buggy boggy Marsh.