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There are certain lines of cinematic dialogue that, as soon as you hear them, you realize you’re going to hear again later in the movie. In the opening scene of Neil Burger’s film adaptation of Karen Dionne’s 2017 novel The Marsh King’s Daughter, we see a father guiding his young daughter through the woods and instructing her how to hunt. He’s gentle and nurturing, but also unflinching in not shielding her from the harsh realities of nature. And he delivers this telling edict: “You must always protect your family.”
The macho-sounding line is delivered not by Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but rather Ben Mendelsohn as Jacob, whom we later learn is known as the Marsh King, so named because he lives off the grid in the remote marshlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (any resemblance to the Hans Christian Andersen tale is purely coincidental). He doesn’t live there alone, but rather with Beth (Caren Pistorius), a woman he kidnapped 12 years earlier and with whom he has a 10-year-old daughter, Helena (Brooklynn Prince, who made such a vivid impression in The Florida Project).
The Marsh King’s Daughter
B-movie material elevated by A-level performances.
Release date: Friday, Nov. 3
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince, Joey Carson, Yanna McIntosh, Gil Birmingham
Director: Neil Burger
Screenwriters: Elle Smith, Mark L. Smith; based on the novel by Karen Dionne
1 hour 48 minutes
One day, while Jacob has wandered off alone, a lost stranger happens by the small cabin where the makeshift family lives. Beth seizes the opportunity to attempt to flee with him, while Helena, who has no understanding of her actual situation, reacts with anger and confusion. Jacob suddenly reappears and shoots the stranger dead, but Beth and Helena manage to escape and make their way to a police station, where they’re taken care of by a solicitous officer, Clark (Gil Birmingham, Yellowstone).
Cut to the present day, when the now-grown Helena (Daisy Ridley) is married to Stephen (Garrett Hedlund), who has no idea of her background, and raising a young daughter, Marigold (Joey Carson). We learn the backstory in full when police officers arrive at her home to tell her that her father, who has been in prison, has escaped and might attempt to reconnect with her. It’s also revealed that Clark had married her mother, who has since died, and raised Helena to adulthood.
Helena, terrified that Jacob will attempt to kidnap both her and Marigold, isn’t fully convinced when she’s informed that the charred remains of her father’s body have been found in a car crash, identified by his three gold teeth. And neither are we, because if he were truly dead, the film would be over just as it’s beginning.
Cue the formulaic horror film mechanics, as Helena begins seeing ominous signs of Jacob’s presence, both real and imagined. When tangible proof of his existence shows up in her daughter’s bedroom, she heads to the remote cabin where she was raised, resulting in a fateful encounter in which she paradoxically employs the very survival skills he taught her so many years earlier and repeats the instruction he once gave her.
It’s hard not to think that a lot has been lost in the transition from book to film. Director Burger (Divergent, The Illusionist) keeps things moving at a breathless pace, perhaps too much so. The prologue and several flashbacks depict Helena’s upbringing at the hands of her clearly disturbed father (with Mendelsohn not looking convincingly much younger), but there’s little depth to the characterizations or situations. Several of the characters, including the victimized Beth and Helena’s husband, Stephen — to whom she reveals the origins of her tattoos in a moving scene — emerge as little more than ciphers. The novel presumably filled in the blanks to build an engrossing tale, one that here comes across as a rote suspenser, complete with jump scares and a violent climax.
The actors nearly elevate the proceedings to something greater. Mendelsohn proves truly chilling as the disturbed “Marsh King,” who refers to Helena as “Little Shadow” and is delusional enough to think she’ll welcome his reappearance; Ridley brings a fierce intensity and athletic physicality to her portrayal of the conflicted Helena; and Birmingham has an affecting soulfulness as the adoptive father.