THE STORY – A young mother must confront her long-buried past as the child of a kidnapper and the girl he held captive when her father breaks out of prison. Convinced he intends to take her daughters, she sets out to find and kill him herself.
THE CAST – Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince & Gil Birmingham
THE TEAM – Neil Burger (Director), Elle Smith & Mark L. Smith (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
Dominic Toretto of the “Fast and Furious” franchise isn’t the only one protective of his family. In fact, he may have met his match with Daisy Ridley’s Helena in “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” a woman who has to confront her past to save all that she finds sacred in her life today (and she does so without jumping out of exploding cars). Neil Burger’s newest film, written and adapted by Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith, isn’t revolutionary in its storytelling, nor does it keep us guessing how it’ll end. Still, it features a twisty and unexpected intro and solid performances from talented cast members.
We’re introduced to a rugged family who lives in the middle of nowhere in their wooden cabin. Helena (her younger self played by a lovely Brooklynn Prince) is eager to go hunting with her father, Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn), and please him. He instills various lessons when they go out, such as where an animal would go to hide from predators and how to track, which we hear repeated throughout the film. Whether she’s successful or not in their hunts, she’ll occasionally receive tattoos from him, like one after she’s unable to kill their potential dinner. Her relationship with her mother (Caren Pistorius), on the other hand, appears less affectionate. They don’t talk much, and Helena observes moments when her parents are tense with each other.
All seemed to be fairly well in their world until one day, a man, lost in the wilderness on an ATV, wanders up to the cabin. Helena’s mother runs out, grabs her daughter, and desperately tries to get the man to help them. The man meets an unfortunate end when Jacob arrives, and before Helena can understand what’s happening, her mother takes her away. That’s when we learn Jacob kidnapped the young woman more than a decade ago and raised Helena in captivity. It’s a shocking and unexpected twist that pays off very well for the filmmakers and sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Twenty years later, Helena (Ridley) lives in modern society by working an office job and having a family of her own. Her husband (Garrett Hedlund) and daughter (Joey Carson) don’t know anything about her past, and the only person in whom she can find solace is Clark (Gil Birmingham), the officer who helped her and her mother at the police station and later became Helena’s stepfather. But when Jacob manages to break out of prison, Helena’s safe world becomes volatile as she expects her father to turn up at any moment.
By this point, the film has entirely shown all its cards, and audiences know exactly how events will unfold. It’s no surprise that Jacob wants to see his daughter after two decades apart and wants them, along with her daughter Marigold, to be a family again. When Helena starts “dreaming” that she sees him, or when she finds gifts he left around the house, she and audience members know exactly what she needs to do: go to the place where it all started and battle it out to save her family.
Even though much of the thrill and tension wears off, there are still solid performances to be found. Both Prince and Ridley show their characters’ courage and what family means to them in various stages of their lives. Prince, who dazzled us with her breakout performance in “The Florida Project,” starts this story off strong as a tough preteen before Ridley takes over. The two actresses play so well off of Mendelsohn, who is terrifying in a number of ways. Before we know the truth about his character, he acts like a tough father with some questionable parenting tactics (i.e., the tattoos). Once we do gain valuable insight into his true relationship with Helena and her mother, he becomes even more chilling. He’s a cold, calculated escapee who you do not want to be caught in the middle of the woods with ever.
Even though “The Marsh King’s Daughter” script loses steam after a certain part, the editing and pacing keep the story moving smoothly and, most importantly, under the two-hour mark. Add in committed performances from the cast, and you have a drama that many will enjoy seeing on the big screen.