Part family drama, part wilderness thriller, The Marsh King’s Daughter aims to take you on one twisty ride. The film follows Helena (Daisy Ridley), who’s clinging desperately to her normal life to hide a dark and dangerous truth from her past: her father is the “Marsh King,” a known criminal. When the Marsh King (Ben Mendelsohn) escapes from prison, Helena must find the strength to confront her past to keep her new life and her family safe.

The Marsh King’s Daughter is based on the bestselling novel by Karen Dionne. Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith adapted the book to screen, with Neil Burger directing. The film stars Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince, and Gil Birmingham.

A unique start and strong performances bolster The Marsh King’s Daughter

The Marsh King’s Daughter opens with young Helena (Brooklyn Prince) living with her parents in a remote cabin in the woods. She’s her father’s “Little Shadow,” following him everywhere and putting her all into learning every aspect about surviving in the wilderness. Jacob (Mendelsohn) teaches Helena everything he knows: how to track and trap, how to shoot, how prey hides from predators. Helena clearly adores her father and absorbs everything he tells her like a sponge.

Then, while Jacob is off on some sort of solo outing one day, a stranger stumbles upon their family cabin. In an instant, everything changes. Helena’s mother pleads with the stranger to help them escape – because for the last 12 years, she’s been held hostage. Helena and her mother ultimately get to the police, and Jacob – the so-called “Marsh King” – winds up in prison. 

It’s an exciting, twisty start to the film which creates an interesting dynamic between the characters. As an adult, Helena can recognize the horrors inflicted by her father; but it’s not always easy reconciling that reality with her lived experience of the man who taught her everything she knows.

As the audience jumps into Helena’s adult life, Ridley does an excellent job building out the character. We can easily see in the film’s quieter moments how her past affects her present; Helena seems perpetually on-guard, always carefully observing her environment and preparing to act at the drop of a hat. Ridley gives a nuanced performance, moving seamlessly from delivering these subtle character moments to handling action sequences and high levels of emotion as the story’s thrills build.

Similarly, Mendelsohn nails his performance as the Marsh King. He can feel charming and sincere and loving one minute when addressing his daughter, then instantly transform into something much more intimidating and threatening the next. 

The Marsh King’s Daughter delivers some good moments of tension, particularly in the film’s midpoint where Helena tries to protect her home and her daughter when she begins to fear her father is about to re-enter her life. The final act, which sees Helena using the survival skills her father taught her to track him down, also offers high stakes and some great tension and action.

The drama/thrills balance here feels off

Unfortunately, The Marsh King’s Daughter ultimately feels like a film that doesn’t quite live up to its potential. It straddles the line between grounded family drama and intense survival thriller. In doing so, the movie ends up watering down both aspects.

There’s a lot of potential to explore the interpersonal conflicts of these characters, and to dive into the psyche of Helena and her relationships with the people in her life, given her background. But it feels like the movie only scratches the surface in this regard. The bit of tension from lying to her husband about her past is soon brushed aside; Helena’s relationship with her step-father comes across as under-developed; and her feelings about her mother go almost completely unaddressed. I know the movie wanted to focus on Helena’s relationship with her father, but it feels like a missed opportunity to make all these other relationships in her life feel so inconsequential.

That said, the story also needed tightening up if it wanted to eschew the personal drama and operate as a more traditional thriller. There are definitely moments that work – Helena setting traps outside her own house, or wading through tall grasses trying desperately to spot her father – but the events don’t stack and escalate the tension quite how I’d have liked. The pacing often lags and undercuts the thrills. Overall, Ridley and Mendelsohn’s performances help keep The Marsh King’s Daughter afloat, but it’s not a movie I’d revisit.

The Marsh King’s Daughter premieres in theaters November 3.