‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’: Daisy Ridley Brings the Intensity That Neil Burger’s Swampy Thriller Lacks

Neil Burger’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter” is another film that sources its material from a bestseller. Karen Dionne’s 2017 novel is the basis for this well-mounted yet damp run through familiar genre hoops. As with many a mixed bag, what this movie at least confirms is that Daisy Ridley is an excellent actor still seeking that worthy post-“Star Wars” title to bring her into richer, dramatic territory. She’s the anchor of this movie, bringing intensity to material that sorely needs more of it.

With a tone set by the title, the movie begins with a dreamlike mood involving a young girl, Helena (Brooklynn Prince) who lives in the Michigan wilderness with her mother (Caren Pistorius) and father, Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn), a rugged survivalist teaching her how to do neat stuff like hunt and wield sharp objects. The truth soon explodes that, unbeknown to the girl, Jacob has been holding Helena and her mother captive. They are soon rescued by the authorities and years later, a grown Helena (Ridley) is now an office worker with a husband (Garrett Hedlund) and young daughter of her own. Her father’s exploits have taken on the tinge of urban myth and is known in the media as “the Marsh King.” But soon Helen’s world is shaken. She has to get back into survival mode when news arrives that Jacob has broken out of prison. 

For a story involving so many layers, Burger sticks to a very surface approach. He’s not a superficial director and movies like “Voyagers,” “Limitless” and “The Upside” show a director who can do visual action and human depth. Compared to those movies, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” is reduced to mere events following each other. The same happened with last year’s “Where the Crawdads Sing” adaptation, so maybe there’s just something in how these narratives translate to screen. The premise is intriguing enough and opens with a dark fairy tale tone as Jacob trains a young Helen in how to function within a wilderness setting. He has that familiar mystical jargon akin to a cult leader when discussing nature and killing. Burger’s camera is always moving, capturing the breadth of landscapes and vastness of shadowy forests. “I wanted to do something where nature and the wilderness became part of the story and this obviously does that,” Burger recently told Entertainment Voice. “There is also an idea here of personal transformation.”

Burger’s search for a story of personal transformation is best captured by Ridley, who is perfectly cast as a mom with a shattering past. When she switches from the office to survivalist mode, it’s quite convincing. The surrounding supporting roles never engage as much because little of them are developed. Gil Birmingham of “Yellowstone” is a smart choice for Helen’s stepfather, Clark, but is given little to do other than to be extra nice and become cannon fodder. Garrett Hedlund should be given more to work with as the husband who realizes his wife is not who he thought she was. Everyone falls conveniently away as cardboard tools for the plot, dissipating for Helen to venture back into the woods to face off with daddy. Ben Mendelsohn is indeed fittingly menacing as a deranged individual. What drives his madness and obsessions is never explored. He too becomes a cog in the plot.

The third act becomes one long chase involving running through the forests and close calls with waterfalls. It looks good because Burger knows where to place the camera. What we’re left with is the sensation that there isn’t much for us to actually care about. This is a versatile filmmaker whose next move is always hard to predict. “The Marsh King’s Daughter” becomes all too formulaic. The dialogue throws out hints of more provocative content, like Clark pointing out the Indigenous tattoos Jacob put on Helen as a young girl. He appropriated Indigenous culture for his own dark uses. A detail like that has much more to explore, even in a speedy thriller. Instead, the movie cares more about the chase than the participants. 

The appeal from anyone watching this movie should be to studios to give Daisy Ridley good roles. Movies like this are the equivalent of actors paying their dues, which she already has. “She’s badass in a way where she can do the physical side but also has this mystery and restraint,” said Burger. Ridley brings urgency and as we saw in “Star Wars,” can easily carry action scenes. There are no lightsabers here, just the hard wilderness, which is another element that engages more than the drama. The trick to adapting a novel is finding the movie in the text as opposed to trying to literally translate. Yet, there is much skill here. Well-directed but just lacking more of a punch, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” closes as a showcase of excellent talents we hope to see again soon. 

The Marsh King’s Daughter” releases Nov. 3 in theaters nationwide.