The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER | The Movie Waffler


The Marsh King's Daughter review
A young woman draws on her survival skills when her abusive father escapes from prison.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Neil Burger

Starring: Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince, Gil Birmingham

The Marsh King's Daughter poster

Forging a post Star Wars career has famously proven difficult for many actors. While his role in the franchise propelled Harrison Ford to megastardom, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Billie Dee Williams didn't fare so well. Adam Driver now has his pick of Hollywood projects. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, not so much. There are at least signs that Ridley is willing to embrace lower budget fare that offers her the chance to display her under-rated acting chops. She's excellent as a depressed office drone in the blackly comic Sometimes I Think About Dying, and despite being lumbered with superficial material, she's compelling in this adaptation of Karen Dionne's novel.

We first encounter Ridley's character, Helena, as a 10-year-old played by Brooklyn Prince. Helena lives in a cabin deep in the Michigan woods with her father Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn, whose age-reducing makeup gives him the appearance of an estranged Hemsworth brother) and mother Beth (Caren Pistorius, an actress whose doe-eyed features make her ideal casting for a young version of Ridley's mother). Beth is cold and distant towards Helena but Jacob takes the child under his wing, teaching her how to survive in the woods by hunting the local fauna. His kill or be killed philosophy may raise red flags for the viewer, but for Helena he's the man she idolises.

The Marsh King's Daughter review

Helena's world is torn apart when it's revealed that Jacob abducted Beth and fathered their daughter against her will. Jacob told Helena that one of the many tattoos he gave her symbolised family, but a Native-American sheriff, Clark (Gil Birmingham), tells her it actually means "owned," as though Jacob had branded his daughter. A tearful Helena is wrenched from the arms of her father, who is imprisoned for the abduction of Beth, along with the murder of a hapless motorcyclist who stumbled upon their cabin.

Two decades later Helena is happily married to the affable Stephen (Garrett Hedlund), with whom she has a young daughter, Marigold (Joey Carson). Helena has never told Stephen the truth about her father, but her facade is exposed when he breaks out of jail and the police descend on her home. Jacob's charred body is soon found in a burnt out car, identified by his distinctive gold teeth, but Helena is convinced he can still somehow get to her.

The Marsh King's Daughter review

Movies like this and the recent Where the Crawdads Sing, in which young women raised in the wild are forced to return to their primitive ways to survive when threatened by abusive men, are really just polite society updates of the sort of swamp set exploitation movies low budget filmmakers cranked out in the 1970s. Instead of Playboy playmates we now get acclaimed English actresses in the lead roles, and the heroines of today's versions of such movies don't murder half as many out of shape rednecks. The '70s versions may have featured a lot more female flesh, but they were arguably more feminist in nature as their heroines never had any male figures they could rely on, unlike the sensitive nice guys we find in these modern updates.

The Marsh King's Daughter's main problem is that it can't accept how closely it skews to the basic appeal of an old-fashioned exploitation pic. It sets up a climactic confrontation between Helena and Jacob, but it never does enough to stir up a primal bloodlust in the viewer. There are parts where it threatens to become a far more nuanced movie about a woman who still loves her father despite knowing he's a monster, but the movie quickly moves on from such moments as it edges towards a final act that we know will see father and daughter pitted against each other in the very woods where they once played out a familial charade.

The Marsh King's Daughter review

Considering how invested the movie is in getting us to that point, the final confrontation comes too late for the movie to do anything interesting with it. Given how the film isn't particularly interested in exploring Helena and Jacob's relationship, it really needs to get to the action a lot earlier. Competent journeyman director Neil Burger struggles to mine tension from his staging of the cat and mouse action, and much of the impact is reduced by Helena being revealed as an equal adversary of her father (the curse of modern Hollywood's obsession with making women protagonists "strong" in the action hero sense, rather than strong willed like the best heroines of the past), who is thus never as threatening as this sort of character should be.

There are scattered scenes that allow Ridley to show that she deserves to remain in the post Star Wars spotlight, particularly a monologue in which Helena imagines being truthful with Stephen on their first date. But once The Marsh King's Daughter transitions from character study to survival thriller it gets lost in the woods.

The Marsh King's Daughter is on Prime Video UK from January 15th.

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