As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, abuse is terrifying, disorienting, reality-warping. I say this as a survivor of vicious parental abuse; as such it is a subject I am very much attenuated to. It was very much for the best that I went into The Marsh King’s Daughter knowing basically nothing about it, seeing that it had Daisy Ridley leading it, figuring that any film that could afford a lead Star Wars actor couldn’t be that cheap, and that it was a thriller. Frankly I was just wanting to kill time and enjoy the theater experience.
Bloody hell, did I choose fortuitously, and harrowingly. The Marsh King’s Daughter, released 2023, directed by Neil Burger and written by Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith, based on the novel by the same name by Karen Dionne, which as of writing I have not yet read (but have put on hold at my local library). It’s a taut hour and forty minutes long, so it’s not an epic by any stretch, but it packs a lot into that time.
The Marsh King’s Daughter is the story of Helena, the daughter of Jacob Holbrook (Ben Mendelsohn), a kidnapper hermit who lives in a forest in a cabin he made in the remote backwoods of Michigan, and the woman he kidnapped so he could force her to be his bride. Helena, played by Brooklynn Prince as a child and by Daisy Ridley as an adult, eventually finds her way into the broader world, escaping her abusive father in the process. Now grown, with a boring excel sheet job, a loving husband, and a beloved daughter, her life seems, for now, going well, having told very few people, not even her new family, about who she really is, for her father has become an infamous serial killer and media sensation (a subject matter not unlike Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places). This appears to end with a coda early on when her father escapes from prison and is believed dead while trying to escape to Canada, but then it seems that he has found her, and wants his daughter back.
As you can guess, this movie is a lot, thematically and otherwise. Of the less heavy aspects, there is the environment of the wilderness of Michigan, far removed from the urbanized parts of the state. If you are seeking a pleasant peninsula, you will certainly find it in this film. The waters are serene, the trees towering, the birds cheerful, the setting almost silent. It is this arcadia that is, of course, shattered by the cruelty of Jacob Holbrook, his very hatred for life itself, seeing value in it only as something to exploit. It is the quiet that would be refuge for the decent ends up prison for the vulnerable and haven for the malicious.
Ridley is the star of the show, and she earns that title. She plays what I recognize from agonizing personal experience as a very realistic abuse victim. She hates that she is Jacob’s spawn, and wishes she could forget about him, but the scars of abuse linger on. The habits, which those of us in survivor communities call ‘fleas’ (as in annoying bugs that won’t go away), still remain, having become a part of how she interacts with the world, indeed frames her entire existence, even if unconsciously. Ridley does this without ever succumbing to melodrama; it never felt tacky to me.
I must give props to Brooklyn Price as the younger Helena. There’s the vulnerability that comes from an upbringing like hers, in the middle of the woods, with no interaction with the broader world. There’s the innate trust a child has in a parent foiled deftly by the naivete that obscures the fact that not all parents are worth obeying, or loving. She sells the utter tragedy of all this, the cruel inevitability of such fate; any child with a parent like that would end up like her. Likewise, I must praise Caren Pistorius as Helena’s mother Beth, so utterly beaten down, so utterly aware of the perversity of her situation, but doing all she can to shield her daughter from the worst of her father.
Ben Mendelsohn plays a frighteningly accurate abuser. There is the pure terror, of course, that had me very anxious throughout the film. But just as importantly, he has two other qualities: a definite charm to him, and a certain patheticness. The charm is how abusers reel in their victims to be psychologically consumed, their sense of self extinguished; you can absolutely believe that this man has talked himself out of a wide variety of situations because he can persuade you that he could never hurt a fly. The patheticness is due to a crushing lack of self-awareness when most decent people would have some: he cannot understand that his daughter would hate him for entirely understandable reasons. It is these two traits that combine to form his great delusion: that his daughter may take her daughter and go be a family together with him in Canada. It’s the sort of wishful thinking that is so hard to refute, and can only be endured until a way out can be found. The wait for that one can be a long, arduous one.
There’s nothing supernatural in The Marsh King’s Daughter, but you would not be wrong to see a noticeable similarity to horror movies in the way it builds suspense. What I found especially compelling is how, more often than not, the tension built is resolved not in a terrifying appearance of Jacob, but in something mundane. It is the sort of hypervigilance that I can personally vouch is so often the result of being abused (I’m reminded of the time in college, in a sleep-deprived exam-induced haze, I thought I saw my mother coming out of the corner of my eye while sitting in a dorm common room - she lived over a hundred miles away from me). You see danger around every corner. You fear that any act you take may be used against you after your abuser learns about it through the most arcane way imaginable. You see hostility, indeed frothing hatred, lurking behind every smile. It is a torture of your subconscious’ own making, and you wish you could grab your mind and shake it, yelling at it to cut it out. So much of the movie is filmed highlighting the monster that is the legacy of abuse, and it really works.
The writers, the director, and Daisy Ridley all combined to give one of the best depictions of the psychology of an abuse victim I’ve ever seen. Helena never told her husband or daughter that she was the daughter of a man so infamous; they met her with deep confusion and a temporary (thankfully) loss of trust in her once they learned the truth, after her father resurfaced. It’s something that I understood immediately: she did not want to perpetually live in the shadow of the cruelty inflicted upon her. She wanted to define herself, to be a person independent of reference to her father. And yet, part of her yearns for her father, a trickle of the ironclad obedience instilled in her remaining malignant well after it was necessary. People want to love their parents, but when the parents have not earned that love, the emotions can be complicated and contradictory. Helena is forced to mourn not the father she had, but the father she wished she had, and her subconscious can have an agonizingly hard time telling the two apart. It felt very real to me. It is something that is alien, indeed downright incomprehensible, to people who haven’t lived it; I envy those who haven’t, and I hope they never become familiar with it.
The film stumbles, though, with some of its side characters. The only person of color in the cast is a police officer who becomes something of a surrogate father to Helena; he is a Native American, and I couldn’t help but think the way his arc ends was somewhat dismissive of him. Likewise. Helena’s husband and daughter disappear from the narrative after a certain point. This leaves the film to focus on the conflict between Helena and Jacob, but I feel like they could have had more active roles in the third act.
The Marsh King’s Daughter is a well-paced, scary-as-hell thriller that has a lot of emotional weight to its core. It was a visceral experience for me, having experienced something like what Helena did, and it ended up leaving quite the impression on me. It’s very much worth seeing, but it may well be too much for some people.
Highlights: the cinematography
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10
POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.