The Marsh King’s Daughter is a powerful story about the psychological hold one person can have on another. We first meet Helena (Brooklynn Prince) as a young girl living off the grid with her mother (Caren Pistorius) and father Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn). They have a tiny cabin deep in the woods, and their food comes from whatever they can kill. Jacob teaches Helena the ins and outs of hunting, giving her a homemade tattoo to celebrate every success and failure. The two are as close as can be.
Without divulging specifics, father and daughter are separated when he’s sent to jail. As an adult, Helena (now played by Daisy Ridley) lives with her husband Stephen (Garrett Hedlund), who has no idea of her past. In fact, the only person who knows is Clark (Gil Birmingham), the cop who looked after her in the wake of Jacob’s incarceration. Secrecy is blown when Jacob escapes. Helena knows he’s coming to find her and that she won’t be able to deny a connection much longer.
I’m leaving out a ton of specifics to preserve the film’s surprises. What’s important to understand is the gripping dynamic that drives the story. Helena has gone from being super-close to her father to being ashamed of him. And yet, when he shows up, he still knows how to command her attention. Years apart have not broken the spell. Fascinatingly, he doesn’t come with malice; he comes to resume their relationship. Reunion is not what Helena wants, but the obedience he instilled in her as a girl remains easily summoned. Great suspense is mined from waiting to see if she’ll give in to him or, if not, what lengths she’ll have to go to if she wants to escape his clutches.
Director Neil Burger stages the psychological tension well, making the marshland setting feel like a foreign, ominous place, particularly when the grown Helena goes back there. This is one of those cases where location is a character in and of itself. The striking part is how Burger conveys the remoteness by having a drone camera skim along the top of the water, with reeds smacking into it as it passes by. A sense of distance from the “real” world is established, effectively turning the region into “Jacob’s world” – a place with certain inhospitable qualities for Helena.
Then you have the two leads doing beautifully understated work. Daisy Ridley avoids histrionics, quietly suggesting the cognitive dissonance taking place inside Helena’s mind. On one hand, she knows Jacob is bad news. On the other, he’s the defining figure in her life. Ben Mendelsohn is also incredible. Many actors would have chosen to play Jacob with an obvious malicious streak. He goes a different way, implying that this man is profoundly dysfunctional and potentially dangerous yet somehow at least a little sincere in his affection for his daughter. That idea takes off in the finale, where Jacob sees the possibility that the affection won’t be returned. Then his true colors come out. It’s a terrifically chilling performance.
Based on Karen Dionne’s book of the same name, The Marsh King’s Daughter is an intellectual thriller more than a visceral one, although it does have a few brutal moments. The movie goes deep into Helena’s fear. She legitimately doesn’t know if she can resist Jacob, but she’s got to find out. That personal high-stakes journey sucked me right in and kept me on edge the whole time.
out of four
The Marsh King's Daughter is rated R for violence. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.