This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the films being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Philip Price
Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn & Garrett Hedlund
Rating: R (violence)
Runtime: 1 hour & 49 minutes
Director Neil Burger (“Limitless,” “Divergent”) is a reliable set of hands to place your stock adaptation of a popular airport thriller in and if nothing else, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” demonstrates just how dependable Burger is at executing, if not elevating what could easily be dismissed as a Lifetime movie. Ironically, this is the kind of psychological drama audiences would flock to theaters to see in decades past when such material was placed in the hands of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Alan Pakula. Though it's highly doubtful this adaptation of Karen Dionne's 2017 bestseller will shape any future box office trends it is nice to see something like “The Marsh King’s Daughter” - a movie with good bones, a strong premise, and something of a movie star in Daisy Ridley's roundabout franchise way - getting a wide release as any option for a sequel or opportunity to franchise are seemingly completely off the table.
As refreshing as all this might feel in our current cinematic landscape, there is unfortunately still something rather rote about the experience of “The Marsh King’s Daughter” for, while those bones are solid, Burger's film doesn't really stand to support much depth or a stand-out performance that takes it beyond the genre stratosphere. There is potential for such, whether that be in exploring the current state of Ridley's Helena Pelletier who is in a constant state of trying to convince herself that the life she's leading is the right one after finding out the one person she believed in the most was really a monster; the movie naturally taking place when this person, this father figure, comes back into her life after 20 years. Or, one of these actors might have taken the opportunity to really infuse the material with some electricity (ahem, Ben Mendelsohn), but instead, things are played fairly safe and straightforward leaving the movie feeling predictable and uninspired.
It's easy to miss some of the directorial choices Burger makes that add some subtlety and nuance to the father/daughter relationship between Mendelsohn's titular character AKA Jacob Holbrook and Ridley, but while the film and the performance do a good job of allowing Mendelsohn's presence to loom over much of the proceedings we never truly feel we understand the guy's motivations even when he states them plainly. We don't buy it. Furthermore, it almost feels as if Mendelsohn should have leaned more in one direction or the other to either emphasize how much of a loose cannon Holbrook could be or make him more of an enigma; showing remorse for his actions despite his inability to control his impulses. Either choice might have then amplified the profundity of the ramifications his actions had on his daughter who has spent the majority of her life figuring out what pieces of her father, if any, she should keep and how she exists outside of his influence, if at all.
The film has something of a prologue showing us the appeal of Holbrook to his daughter (played in flashback by Brooklynn Prince) which also serves as a blueprint for where/how the story will unfold as well as outlining the character's inclinations and conditioning so that we understand and believe their choices later. We see the instillation of Helena's pessimism, the ruthlessness of Holbrook and his lack of pity or sympathy in any situation. I mention this prologue specifically because it includes some of the best moments in the film in terms of tension and character work. Convincingly painting a portrait of how someone, especially an impressionable child, can come to have positive feelings toward a captor and sympathy for their causes while developing negative feelings toward outside authority figures. The first 20 or so minutes of the film highlight this turn while the remaining hour and a half feels as if it never finds its footing in trying to dissect how one undoes that damage and indoctrination. A special shoutout to Caren Pistorius though, who plays Helena's mother and whose eyes and expressions in certain scenarios say more than any dialogue could.
The final climactic sequence carries some impressive stunt work and thrilling action, but if you're coming to the film because you believe it to be an action thriller, I'm afraid you'll leave pretty disappointed as most of the action is contained to the third act. While a lack of chase sequences or shootouts might prove disappointing for some, I doubt they would be as disappointed in the film as a whole as I was in the lack of attention paid to Ridley and Garrett Hedlund's marriage in the film. Nothing about the relationship makes sense. Like, we get that Helena is supposed to be permanently distant from everyone in her life outside of her own daughter - which, is another can of worms this doesn't really dive into - but there are certain, specific shots that would seemingly be included for very specific reasons that are never addressed otherwise. It's as if a whole subplot was cut that deals with Helena's inability to function in a normal, loving relationship and all that's left are these remnants that make her as a person as well as Ridley's performance feel unnatural. Which, I guess is what I was asking for when I said something needed to rise above the routine here, but these oddities don't so much elevate “The Marsh King’s Daughter” as they do signal a lack of investment in this kind of storytelling.