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Based on nothing but its name, Neil Burger’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter” sounds like the first draft of a Shakespeare comedy or maybe a fantasy adventure about a princess who inherits a spirited wetland full of talking birds and bullfrogs. Indeed, the title first belonged to a Hans Christian Andersen story about a pair of talking storks who build their nest atop the home of a Viking warrior, and Burger’s movie — much like the 2017 Karen Dionne novel on which it’s based — re-uses it as part of a conscious effort to set fantastical expectations for what turns out to be a grounded (if somewhat dubious) psychological thriller.
It’s a fitting misdirect for a film about a tween girl whose seemingly magical childhood, spent way off the grid in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is violently disenchanted by the discovery that her father is actually a demented survivalist who abducted her mother and has been keeping the whole family captive ever since. Played during the prologue by “The Florida Project” star Brooklynn Prince (who passes the baton to Daisy Ridley), Helena thought she grew up in a fairy tale, but everyone she’s met in the 20 years since her rescue — and her father’s subsequent imprisonment — insists that she was raised in a nightmare. The self-divided struggle to reconcile those stories has only gotten harder for Helena now that she’s an office drone with a daughter of her own, which means that she isn’t in the best state of mind when daddy Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn) breaks out of jail in the hopes of reuniting with his “little shadow” and stealing her back to the marsh.
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Dionne published “The Marsh King’s Daughter” a year before “Where the Crawdads Sing,” and though it lacked the soft and willowy core needed to earn Reese Witherspoon’s endorsement, the whole “semi-feral white woman who needs to murder her way out of the wetlands” schtick is still tawdry in a way that limits the story’s intergenerational death match to the stuff of cheap suspense.
Perhaps suffering from the same kind of identity crisis as its heroine, Burger’s soggy mishmash of an adaptation struggles to thread the needle between pulpy fun and a probing character study. While appropriately hard-nosed when compared to the florid, YA-adjacent tone of last summer’s “Crawdads” movie, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” has to fight an even steeper uphill battle against silliness. It doesn’t have the time to take its own premise seriously: This thing was palpably shot on a schedule so tight that even its best scenes feel like they’re gasping for air.
Ridley is a strong actress who can struggle to make an impression in a role without enough meat on the bone (relatable for a film critic straining to say anything of interest about a mediocre film). She does some experience playing capable women with complex family histories, and her flinty but implosive performance as Helena is compelling enough to lure “The Marsh King’s Daughter” away from schlock in favor of something more nuanced.
Ridley is perfectly believable when the movie throws her character into action mode, but she really excels during quieter moments when Helena struggles to figure out where she belongs. With a nearly imperceptible eye twitch that shudders with the force of an earthquake, she internalizes a lifetime of secrets and doubts; it’s a preview of her wonderfully recessive performance in the forthcoming “Sometimes I Think About Dying.” Alas, the potential offered by Ridley’s performance is a mixed blessing in a movie that lacks the substance to make something of it and the discipline not to try.
“The Marsh King’s Daughter” could have been a lean and rugged action-thriller about a woman using the skills her father taught her to free herself from his influence, sacrificing her fucked-up fondness for him like an animal chewing off its own leg to escape the clutches of a fatal trap. It also could have been a semi-heightened domestic drama about the wounds that people try to keep from their partner (and prevent passing down to their children); Elle and Mark L. Smith’s screenplay does what it can to flesh out Helena’s relationship with the cop (Gil Birmingham) her late mom remarried after Jacob’s arrest, or shine a light on the strain that Helena’s secrets place om her relationship with a loving but understandably miffed Garrett Hedlund. Instead, the finished product is both and neither all at once.
Ridley can do it all, Mendelsohn is typecast as a menacingly charismatic weirdo for a reason (it’s wild how, turn on a dime, he can make Jacob engender sympathy) and the dry-gold hinterlands of Ontario embody northern Michigan with the “more human than human” aplomb of a British or Australian actor playing American. However, Burger doesn’t have the chops to sell the inevitable sequence in which Helena and Jacob hunt each other in the same marshes where they formed their toxic bond, nor does this movie’s clipped 108-minute runtime give him enough runway to meaningfully tee up the “most dangerous game” of it all.
Clearly killing time until the big climactic showdown, there’s a gaping hole where the middle of “The Marsh King’s Daughter” should be. Jacob escapes from jail at the end of the first act only to stay off screen until the third, rendering his threat largely existential, and the movie is so afraid of making viewers restless that it shies away from dramatizing anything it can’t resolve in 20 seconds or less.
We’re told that Helena had a meaningful relationship with her stepdad, but in this story he exists only to translate one of the tattoos that Helena’s biological father gave her as a brand — it means “owned” in Ojibwe, not “family.” Oops. We’re told that Helena’s mother killed herself several years earlier, but the anguished and potentially fascinating dynamic between mother and daughter goes unexplored. The resentment Helena maintains for Jacob is easier to articulate than the resentments he conditioned her to have toward anyone who didn’t share “their happiness.”
There’s a very good scene in which Helena acts out how things might have gone had she told her husband about her past on their first date, and several more in which Ridley plays with the performativity of her character’s identity as a suburbanite worker bee (Helena has to put on her mom voice, otherwise she defaults to the “kill or be killed” brusqueness she inherited from Jacob). But hinting at such undercurrents isn’t enough to bring them to life, and “The Marsh King’s Daughter” isn’t viscerally elemental in a way that allows its characters to be expressed through action.
And so, we’re left with a film adrift somewhere between fantasy and reality. It’s not self-divided, but it lacks both the resolve to commit or the nuance to thrive in the space between. It’s a film that knows raising a child should mean preparing them to exist outside of your shadow, but it isn’t distinct enough to imagine what self-definition might look like for Helena, or for itself.
Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions will release “The Marsh King’s Daughter” in theaters on Friday, November 3.
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