November 14, 2023 – If you’re looking for another evening away from the TV, The Marsh King’s Daughter, now playing at the Sutton Theatre in Grass Valley, will provide you with a decent evening of suspenseful entertainment.
The film takes place mostly in the remote forests of Upper Michigan (here played by Ontario, Canada). Helena (Brooklynn Prince), twelve years old, lives a Robinson Crusoe childhood in a log cabin, far far away from modern civilization. Homeschooled by her father Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn), she’s learned all she needs to know: hunting, trapping, and fishing. Her handstitched clothes are cool and so are the tattoos inscribed on her by her father (marking her as his). The only flaw in this perfect picture is Helena’s distant, grouchy—and nameless–mother (Caren Pistorius), whose attempts at disciplining Helena crumble when faced with the father-daughter bond.
Helena seems set for life and wanting for nothing–but then comes the day when Jacob’s benevolent mask slips as he coldly guns down a lost explorer (Joshua Peace) who blunders into their arcadia on his ATV. Helena’s mother commandeers the ATV—rather unconvincingly—and drags Helena against her will back to civilization. Taking refuge in a police station, the mother confronts her with the awful truth. They are not Jacob’s family but his prisoners and have been since Jacob kidnapped her mother twelve years ago, meaning Helena is the product of a rape.
This shattering revelation, along with being torn away from her childhood arcadia, is impossible for Helena to deal with. She slips out of the police station to unite with her father, who’s lurking nearby. But the police, led by Sheriff Clark (the always welcome Gil Birmingham), foil the pair’s escape, this time for good.
In an excellent montage that portrays Helena’s gradual absorption into the modern world, twenty years pass. Helena (now played by Daisy Ridley) has adapted, with little apparent struggle, to dull, sensible city life under a new identity. She’s kept her past secret from most everyone, even her dull husband, Stephen (Garrett Hedlund), and daughter, Marigold (Joey Carson). (Only Sheriff Clark, who adopted her, knows the truth). Her only visible scars are the tattoos, which she explains away as souvenirs of a youthful sojourn in San Francisco. She’s so nice, no one questions her story.
All seems right until Papa Jacob makes a bloody spectacular escape from custody. The FBI come to Helena’s door, exposing her secrets and threatening her marriage. Meanwhile, Jacob, a most cunning predator, circles in scheming to kidnap Helena and his granddaughter and imprison them his survivalist utopia. There, father and daughter will battle to the death in the world they once shared.
The Marsh King’s Daughter is a pretty good dramatic outdoor thriller. There are several themes weaving underneath: the loss a childhood paradise; father-daughter relationships; the stain left by parental abuse; how dreams claim our hearts even in the face of ugly truth; the gap between civilization and wilderness, and how the most beautiful paradise can also be a hell.
Visually, The Marsh King’s Daughter is pleasing to the eye, thanks to Neil Burger’s smooth direction and Alwin H. Küchlar’s cinematography. The endless forests are beautiful, yet the overcast skies rather undercut the romance leaving us to wonder at the wisdom of living wild.
Sad to say, the film, adapted by Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith from Karen Dionne’s novel, allows all its potential themes to fall by the wayside (along with one important character) as it races to a standard thriller finish. The climax is slick and reasonably exciting (including a spectacular tumble down a steep riverbank) but it feels flat like the marshy wilderness surrounding it. At the end, I experienced little in the way of triumph, agony, or relief.
Both Helena’s and Jacob’s characters start out fascinating as they shift from love to hate but they eventually become action thriller stereotypes. Ben Mendelsohn does good job of portraying Jacob’s seductive surface in the beginning, but he becomes less interesting as he flattens into a standard misogynist swamp monster. We’re never given any clues to his motivation or the context of his obsessions, making Jacob just another movie psycho.
Daisy Ridley is convincing in portraying Helena’s turn from contented domesticity to cunning girl power, but again, in its hurry to be a thriller, the script keeps her on the surface. Helena should be a deeply conflicted woman who’s torn between love and appreciation of the world she grew up in and the lessons she learned and fear and loathing of her mentor in that world. She remains unreachable, giving not even a backward glance as she makes her way back to civilization. Few of us let go of our childhood that easily, no matter its darkest corners.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “McCain, the Stranger” is in the online version of Mystery Tribune. His article “Noir or Not?: Straw Dogs” is in the current issue of Noir City magazine. A freelance editor, he’s also the author of the short story “Lucky Day” in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press 2020), He’s also the author of Butchertown (Ambler House 2017), a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark.