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November 8, 2023


written by: Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith
produced by: Teddy Schwarzman, Keith Redmon and Mark L. Smith
directed by: Neil Burger
rating: R (for violence)
runtime: 108 min.
U.S. release date: November 3, 2023


It feels like there’s a whole chunk of story missing from “The Marsh King’s Daughter”, the latest film from director Neil Burger (“Limitless” and “The Upside”). Something is missing. Considering it is based on the 2017 international best-selling suspense novel of the same name from writer, Karen Dionne, one would think there’s much more to the story here. No doubt, those who’ve read the book will know. Ironically, Dionne co-opted the title from a story by Hans Christian Andersen about a pair of talking storks who build their nest at the home of a Viking warrior. Now that sounds more interesting than anything I saw in what is being marketed as a psychological thriller from screenwriters Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith. The movie is not quite psychological enough, nor is it all that thrilling.

The first half of “The Marsh King’s Daughter” introduces us to the traumatic childhood experienced by the protagonist of the story. We also see parental manipulation on display that becomes detrimental. There’s some solid characterization from the start, but it’s quite clear right away that the story could’ve benefited from a deeper, clearer examination of the situations and experiences presented.



When we’re introduced to Helena (Brooklyn Prince), she’s a preteen being raised in the middle of nowhere by her father and mother. Her father is Jacob Holbrook (Ben Mendelsohn) a survivalist raising Helena to fend for herself in the wilderness (she learns tracking and hunting and other survival skills), while incorporating tattoos to mark her achievements and failures, as well as isolating her as part of her training. All of this while nicknaming her “Little Shadow” and reiterating to her “all that matters is family”. As their connection grows, she complains that her mother, Beth (Caren Pistorius), is always mad at her and, using that, Jacob shares with Helena how her mother wouldn’t understand what she is learning about the world and “doesn’t know how to be happy”. While he is gone one day, Helena’s mother grabs her daughter and frantically makes a dash to escape their desolate home. Much of the movie explores the young Helena’s resentment for this separation, unable to acknowledge the horrific reality of the only home she’s ever known.

It’s not until later on do we piece together why she wanted to leave with Helena. Life amongst the marshes of upper peninsula Michigan (filmed in Ontario, Canada, during the summer of 2021) is all Helena has ever known. However, most of her traumatic past is told either at the start of the movie or through memory flashes when she is an adult (played by Daisy Ridley). This is how we learn that Helena was a product of her mother being abducted. sexually assaulted, and held prisoner for years by Jacob.

In the story’s present-day (which is 2010), we find out Jacob was imprisoned for years after authorities revealed he abducted Beth. Helena’s mother is now deceased and her stepfather, Clark (an always welcome Gil Birmingham), a sheriff who knew Helena since she was a little girl, brings her news that Jacob has escaped prison. Helena has done everything to distance herself from her past, from multiple name changes to various moves. She is holding down a mundane office job and is living with her husband, Stephen Pelletier (Garrett Hedlund), and their young daughter, Marigold (Joey Carson). News of Jacob’s activity puts Helena on high alert, expecting her father to track her and her family down, as memories of her troubled past surface.



Helena’s past comes into the light once Jacob is on the run, jeopardizing all her efforts to conceal it for so long. She’s never told her husband, Stephen, about her past. That might be just as well since the screenplay doesn’t have much for Hedlund to do as the “concerned husband”. I know if I was in his shoes, I’d take my daughter for a long trip until the authorities have dealt with Jacob…because I’ve seen how stories like this turn out. That being said, one of the best scenes of the movie is an imaginary scene in which Ridley’s Helena introduces herself to Stephen, divulging all of her past secrets while removing clothing to reveal the tattoos she has from her father. It’s a fascinating “what if?” scenario that you can imagine Helena may have pondered since meeting Stephen.

Ridley is great in this scene and she’s strong throughout the movie. If only there was more for her here to dig into. Her character is complex, but the Burger doesn’t provide much time for Ridley to process all the potential layers. Ridley’s scenes with Birmingham are great, but there are too few. Burger is in a rush to get to the outdoor chase and gunfire as father and daughter inevitably confront each other. Although Mendelsohn has a one-dimensional role, there are moments where you can see how his point-of-view and ideologies could be convincing. It would’ve been helpful if we were given some idea why he is the way he is.

I have a hunch the book explores areas of psychological manipulation, trauma, and paranoia, much more than this adaptation does. The shift from traumatic pain and confusion to a by-the-numbers action thriller isn’t very smooth or absorbing. There are certainly unsettling moments, but too much time is spent rushing the “The Marsh King’s Daughter” into a familiar place.

The more novels I see turned into movie adaptations the more I realize maybe they should be mini-series instead. After all, books have chapters, maybe these adaptations should have episodes to dig deep into the story and fully flesh out the characters. Sometimes you just can’t wrap it all up in two hours or less.



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