Nothing is more important than protecting your family, as the strange woman protagonist of this 2023 movie, The Marsh King’s Daughter, often repeats.
She is Helena, who grew up in an odd family living entirely in the forest isolation, where her father, Jacob, taught her everything about hunting and survival.
Every lesson in her life, every success or failure, is branded on her skin with a tattoo, like tears painted on her cheeks as a reminder never to cry and fearlessly face every situation.
Although she and her father are delighted to live free in this condition of total estrangement from the outside world, her mother is almost always depressed and angry.
Young Helena will only learn the truth when a lost stranger arrives in front of their house, seeing her mother desperately pleading for help to escape.
Indeed, Jacob had kidnapped and held her captive since before the child’s birth, in a forced relationship that she endured only for the love of her daughter.
Free at last, mother and daughter can begin a new life while police arrest and convict her father and the media brand him as the dreaded Marsh King.
Twenty years later, Helena lives with the charming and brilliant Stephen, later becoming herself the mother of a little girl, Marigold.
Although memories of the past return daily to distress her, her life is relatively peaceful and happy, at least until one day, on her way home, she finds some FBI agents investigating her father’s escape.
However, shortly after that Jacob’s body is found in a wrecked car along the border, so the police dismiss the case as a failed getaway; although Helena is more than convinced her father is still alive and wants to reunite the former family, including her new granddaughter.
Well greeted, but underestimated?
From what I noticed, reading many reviews and opinions online, reception is very conflicting and difficult to grasp.
Many people have not particularly enjoyed this 2023 movie, though they do not even despise it, just rating The Marsh King’s Daughter as something average and nothing more.
I found it to be an excellent story on many different levels, packaged in a perfect mix of location, light, and natural photography under the direction of Neil Burger.
Dear old Neil is a director I intermittently adore some of his excellent movies like Limitless, Divergent, or The Illusionist but find relatively poor others, such as Voyagers or The Upside, the latter being a pointless remake of the excellent French comedy The Intouchables.
In this case, however, the recipe has all the right flavors, skillfully mixing thriller with family drama on the one hand and the romantic contrast of wild (but free) life in nature against the control and restrictions of modern society.
Wishing to find a fault, another director with more horror in his veins could have charged scenes with more tension, especially toward the end when it takes a definite action/survival turn.
However, we must acknowledge excellent editing work to keep pace with the proper suspense in each scene without falling into the trap of unnecessary blood or violence exaggeration.
The story takes the right amount of time to establish the different twists and turns, clearly separating the first part in the forest (almost another movie itself) that is the most intriguing against the more conventional (but still exciting) thriller it becomes later.
In short, I see no particular flaws in a movie that makes the most of every narrative virtue it has and, above all, also a cast worthy of an outstanding performance in every role.
Protect the family at any cost
The unquestionable protagonist of this bizarre family epic is Daisy Ridley, a relatively still up-and-coming actress familiar to the general public as the female hero of the most recent Star Wars trilogy.
Despite the ups and downs of the famous saga, we must admit her character is undoubtedly one of the most convincing aspects of these movies, offering an intriguing mix of easy beauty and aggressiveness in the action scenes.
In this case, to her winning formula, Daisy also adds a hint of sadness, which we see especially in the private moments of the now woman Helena Pelletier, whom the still younger Brooklynn Prince, on the other hand, plays just as worthily as a child.
This underlying sadness for Helena stems from nostalgia for life in the woods, pure wild survival, and not having to account to anyone for her actions.
Equally complex is the relationship with her father, Jacob, perfectly brought to the stage by Ben Mendelsohn, for a man she fears but ultimately loves because, after all, he shaped her into who she is.
A whole different matter is the mother, with an excellent Caren Pistorius in the role, whose character we learn about mainly through a few sporadic flashbacks that tie in with Helena’s daughter, Marigold, again with capable child actress Joey Carson.
In such a story, the husband could wind up in the shadows without much importance; instead, Garrett Hedlund (already noticeable in Tron Legacy) gives a fair personality to him even though, of course, most of the scenes go to his wife.
We are talking about a plot that is relatively simple and linear, although what makes the difference are the conflicts between the characters and the double desire for life in the woods/civilization the protagonist will never resolve.