Daisy Ridley’s in-charge performance as “THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER” | MOVIE REVIEW

Beginning the year with a moving turn in the Sundance darling, “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” Daisy Ridley continues her quest to carve out exciting performances in absorbing films. The actress ends 2023 with Neil Burger’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter.” As with all adaptations of popular mainstream novels, fans of Karen Dionne’s 2017 namesake work will likely lead the the book was better charge. While Burger’s film (written by father and daughter screenwriters Mark L. Smith and Ellie Smith) has a few issues, this is an intriguing and well-constructed thriller.

Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler’s rendering of the titular marshlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula opens the film. Sunlight cuts through the trees, illuminating the beautiful surroundings of nature. The marsh is a paradise for young Helena (Brooklynn Prince), a rugged land that brings her comfort. This is the home she shares with her family.

Her father, Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn), raised her in this world and taught her to live off the land while appreciating the life that breathes around her. With the sun beaming behind him from Helena’s point of view, Burger solidifies that Jacob is a hero in the eyes of his daughter, a protector who loves his family. As Jacob guides Helena through her first hunt, Mendelsohn softly crafts his character, being direct with the young girl but never stern. While having a couple of peculiar rituals, his demeanor is gentle and protective; everything about this man appears to be on the right side of being paternal. The curtain is pulled back when Jacob goes on a lone hunt, leaving Helena and her mother (Caren Pistorius) alone in the cabin.

A stranger rides up on his ATV, he claims he’s lost and has no signal. Burger wrings real tension out of the moment. Those who haven’t read the novel aren’t sure if the man is being truthful or has more nefarious intentions. Helena and the audience are bolted out of their perceived serenity as her mother runs out, begging the man to take her and Helena away. The woman seeks to escape from Jacob, as he kidnaps Helena’s mother and has held her captive for years; the marsh is now a prison, no longer the Eden of Helena’s memory.

As Jacob goes to prison, Burger’s film moves on to find Helena (Ridley), now grown and married with her young daughter. Her husband Stephen (Garrett Hedlund) is kind, and their young daughter Marigold (Joey Carson) completes the life Helena has carved out for herself. Burger doesn’t oversell the happy home and life in suburbia, letting viewers in just enough, but memories of the marshlands and the broken pieces of her young life haunt Helena.

Helena lives with the ghosts of her past, keeping them buried and soldiering on until Jacob escapes from prison. Armed with the knowledge and skills taught to her by her father, Helena now becomes the protector of her own family, returning to the lands of her youth to confront the genuine ghosts of her past. The film finds its strength in the first half. The gorgeous visuals mix with the delicate sequences of young Helena and her father bonding as they walk through the world Jacob has created. Ben Mendelsohn traverses the ambiguities of his character, exuding a soulfulness behind his blue eyes that earns his daughter’s (and the audience’s) admiration. Brooklynn Prince infuses Helena, with innocence and wide-eyed wonder, becomes pure heartbreak when she finds that her entire young life has been a lie.

As the older Helena Daisy Ridley does top work of hiding the pain of betrayal and loss (of family and innocence), almost forcing herself to live a happy life. Ridley’s performance is tender when she is with her husband and daughter, but it is in the quiet where the character’s thoughts go to the safety of her family and the darkness that blankets her memories.

A reunion with Clark, the cop who helped rescue her and eventually became her stepfather (the always-welcome Gil Birmingham), forces Helena to confront her past and lean into the cloudy memories of her mother. While their scenes are short, the moments between Ridley and Birmingham hold quiet consideration and mutual respect. Estranged from the young woman since the suicide of her mother, Clark wants to be closer but fears opening old wounds. Helena knows he cares deeply but cannot revisit the past his presence symbolizes. Theirs is a carefully constructed relationship. And the soul of the film.

Moving into its final act, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” becomes a standard wilderness survival film, a chance for Burger to inject a thrilling finale reminiscent of “Deliverance,” “Southern Comfort,” and “The Revenant,” leaning into the tension of two people surviving the terrain while trying to stop one another. With only a couple of too-quick encounters between Ridley and Mendelsohn, the film undercuts its previously compelling path by throwing in the towel. Just as the “hunt” begins, the film limps to an unsatisfactory cat-and-mouse conclusion.

What fails in the ending doesn’t hurt the film that comes before. Ridley, Mendelsohn, and Birmingham are on point and bring the dramatic edge. The director keeps the film moving at a tight pace, coloring its ambiance with a dark tone without losing sight of the pull of the well-written roles. 

In spite of the lack of substance in its ending Neil Burger keeps “The Marsh King’s Daughter” interesting with this new thriller that’s driven by mood. 

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