Daisy Ridley will probably always be known for her role as Rey in the Star Wars movies. It doesn’t really matter how long of a career she has, that sci-fi/fantasy franchise dominates. Finding quality roles outside of that has been Ridley’s problem ever since. The Marsh King’s Daughter might sound like the title to another kind of fantasy tale, and the isolated, forest setting of the film’s opening has a storybook quality to it. But this is no fairy tale, but a Cape Fear-esque psychological thriller that never quite pulls itself free of the bog enough to measure up to Ridley’s measured performance.
An adaptation of Karen Dionne’s 2017 novel, The Marsh King’s Daughter centers on Helena Holbrook, who we first encounter as a tween girl played by Brooklynn Prince. Interestingly, the reality of Helena’s existence is similar to that of Prince’s most famous character, The Florida’s Project‘s Moonie, who believed she was living an idyllic existence while the reality was considerably uglier. For Helena, the off-the-grid, hunter-gatherer life she’s had with her father Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn) and mother (Caren Pistorius) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has been pure magic. Her father trains her to be as much of a survivalist as him; teaching her to hunt, to kill, and to “always protect your family.” So imagine how her little mind was blown to discover that the man she looked up to most was actually “the Marsh King”, a violent man who abducted her mother years earlier and forced her to bear his child. When her mother risks all to escape and Jacob is finally apprehended, Helena sees the fantasy world she was living in turn out to be a nightmare.
20 years later, and Helena is now a mother, with a caring husband in Stephen (Garrett Hedlund) and a boring office job. But time and distance have not helped her cope with the duality of her childhood memories. She remembers Jacob fondly for all of the things he taught her, but also hates him for the things he didn’t tell her. Ironically, Helena withholds the truth of her past from Stephen, who thinks she’s just a boring gal he met who moved around a lot as a kid and has an unusually large number of tattoos. This guy is sort of an idiot, but then he’s not much of a character at all, really. He’s barely there. Imagine Helena’s mental state when Jacob breaks out of prison with plans of being reunited with his daughter…well, she’s going to have to put all of those useful hunting skills to the test. But does she have the will to fight her own father?
If this movie belongs to anyone, it’s Ridley. That much should be obvious, but it needs to be said that she’s too good for this material. Directed by Neil Burger, The Marsh King’s Daughter never seems comfortable in its own kind, a little bit like Helena herself. A decision should’ve been made whether to present this story with the wild, pulpy tone a vengeful story like this demands, or to go full-blown character drama with it. Personally, I would’ve went for the former, because Ridley, with her stern jaw and surprising intensity and physicality, would make one Hell of a mama bear protecting her den. And we know that Mendelsohn can ham it up like a champ, especially when playing a creepy, manipulative baddie as he does here. He could’ve gone totally into De Niro in Cape Fear territory, and this would’ve been a more enjoyable film for it.
Instead, Ridley plays it serious, and Burger tries his best to make every scene feel weighty. But this is clearly a trimmed-down production and there simply isn’t enough time to fully sink into Helena’s struggle with the past and present. Ridley has played this kind of complex, secretive loner character before, one who is forced to fight for the new family she has found against the threat of another. Her sturdy performance here resembles Rey in a lot of ways, especially in how she internalizes Helena’s confusion and rage. Helena is someone who is always playing a role, in order to not be the semi-feral person she was raised to be. It’s genuinely fascinating to watch Ridley as she slides between Helena’s maternal side and her predatory nature.
Fans of Ridley will want to check this out for her, because there’s not much suspense to be found elsewhere. Even with the atmospheric, remote setting and the looming threat of Jacob’s return, the sense of danger simply isn’t there. Try as he might, Burger isn’t the right filmmaker to capture the muderous game of cat-and-mouse between Helena and Jacob in the very marshlands where their bond was formed. Also, this film would’ve done better to tie the bulk of the story to the threads that continue to bind father and daughter. While Jacob’s lessons ring in Helena’s head, more a direct connection was needed to drive up tension for the big showdown. Instead, Jacob is gone for large chunks of the movie, while Helena spends that time with her Native American stepdad Chuck (Gil Birmingham), who never feels like anything more than a potential target.
The Marsh King’s Daughter sells itself short in the end, abandoning any ambiguity with a finale that is disappointingly black and white. But Ridley powers through and delivers the way she always does, even if she’s still tracking down the next film that lives up to her talents.
The Marsh King’s Daughter is in theaters now.