Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince, Joey Carson, Yanna McIntosh, Gil Birmingham
Runtime: 1 hr 48 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Violence)
Released By: GV
Opening Day: 30 November 2023
Synopsis: Based on the international bestselling, award-winning psychological suspense novel The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne, ‘Helena Pelletier’ leads an ideal life with a great husband and a young daughter but she is hiding a dark secret within: that her father is the infamous ‘Marsh King,’ the man who kidnapped her Mother as a teen, and that she was the product of the relationship between captive and tormentor. Helena has lived in the wilderness for 12 years, in a life carefully controlled by her kidnapper/father ‘Jacob,’ until he is caught and sent to prison. When Jacob escapes from prison unexpectedly, sensing the danger this monster poses for her husband and young daughter, Helena must confront her secret past and use the tools he equipped her with to hunt him down.
If you, like us, had not read Karen Dionne’s 2017 bestseller before this, you’d probably think that ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’ was a rugged survivalist thriller about a woman who uses the skills her father had taught her against him in the wilderness that she was raised. Yet as much as that is the pitch, it is only in the last half-hour of the movie that such a promise is realised, so those looking for it to be a lean, mean adrenaline-pumping exercise will be disappointed.
On the other hand, those who have read the book will probably be expecting a probing character study about the said woman Helena, whose first 10 years of her life revolved tightly around her father Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn) and whose world therefore crumbles after she learns that he had in fact kidnapped her mother Beth 12 years earlier to live with him off the grid in the remote marshlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. How would such a character confront the ghosts of her past when her father escapes from federal custody and returns to seek her out?
Somewhat disappointingly too, there is not enough emotional heft for this adaptation to be the compelling character study which the book promised. Though the first 15 minutes tries to detail the relationship between a young Helena and her father from her point of view, it isn’t gripping enough to sustain the subsequent unravelling of their relationship after Jacob is apprehended as well as the struggle she is confronted with later on whether to re-engage with him or detach from him completely.
That’s ultimately a pity, because it is obvious even from those who have not read the book that there is plenty of promise in its premise of someone who has had her world pulled out from under her feet, and then after rebuilding a new reality, forced to confront the one she had left behind. Having this play out against the dynamics of a father-daughter relationship would have made it all the richer. Yet director Neil Burger, working off a script by Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant), brings little depth to the characterisations or the situations.
Even with several flashblacks depicting Helena’s upbringing, it is not quite enough to fully express the intense yet cold relationship she shared with her father. Ditto the subsequent relationship between Helena and her stepdad Clark (Gil Birmingham), which is even more under-developed; and the same can also be said of the tension between Helena and her mother Beth (Caren Pistorius), whom Helena resented for a long while for causing her to be separated from her father.
To their credit, the cast make the best of their roles. Ridley brings a fierce intensity as Helena, especially when she resolves that the only way to protect her daughter is to take out her father. Though he is clearly capable of so much more, Mendelsohn is charismatically menacing as the titular Marsh King, and utterly convincing in selling his character’s delusion of reuniting with his ‘Little Shadow’. We’d wish there were more scenes of Ridley and Mendelsohn together, which would in turn further anchor the toxic bond between their characters.
As a formulaic suspense drama, there is really nothing off about ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’; in fact, one might compliment Burger for moving things along at a breathless pace. Yet those looking for something more, of which the movie is clearly capable of, there is the unmistakable sense that something was lost in the transition from book to film – and we dare say, this is even for those who have not read Dionne’s novel. Were it not for the performances, the film would be even more unsatisfying, but thanks to Ridley and Mendelsohn, it is still a decent paperback-to-film adaptation..
(Not quite the compelling character study it could have been, this adaptation of Karen Dionne's bestseller is still a decent, formulaic suspense drama)
Review by Gabriel Chong