The day after the London Film Festival screening of The Daughter last October, I met my friends Tim and Natalie for breakfast and I was discussing the films I have seen this festival so far (The Measure of a Man, out in June, and The Program). He told me that performed a small role in the original stage play which makes the basis of The Daughter, The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen. As I described the film and tried to interrogate him about the original play, Tim stated, from his perspective, that Henrik Ibsen is to Sweden as Tennessee Williams is to America. Simon Stone, acclaimed theatre director in Australia who has been making inroads in the international scene, decides to adapt his own adaptation to the screen, changing the names (aside from Hedvig), turning the principal character Christian (Paul Schneider) into a more emotional provocateur, leading to an even more melodramatic telling, maybe overly so…
Geoffrey Rush plays Henry Neilson, a rich timber-mill owner, who decides after financial considerations to close the mill, which threatens a mass exodus from the town that needed it for jobs. Meanwhile, he prepares for his wedding to his former housekeeper (Anna Torv), a woman who is many years his junior, and this brings his wayward, half-American son Christian (Paul Schneider) back to witness the wedding, who uses it as a way to escape problems with his marriage with a bottle. As the wedding approaches, Christian is reintroduced to his childhood best friend, Oliver (Ewen Leslie) and his substitute teacher wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), Oliver’s absent-minded former white collar criminal father Walter (Sam Neill), who has made a hobby of taking care of animals injured by men, and their daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young). When Christian finds out a secret that Henry has been trying to hide, Christian decides misery loves company and decides to share the secret with Oliver, leading to complex moral destruction, roping in everyone around them.
Simon Stone does make his mark from the beginning, with well-shot landscapes of New South Wales, allowing a life in Australia that is not rarely seen in films released outside of Australasia. Aged, rusted buildings, and deep Alpine-style forests, it becomes effective at building a world where this melodrama can take place, and helps to keep the more extravagant drama more low-key and nailed down for most of the run-time. The simple nature of Oliver and Charlotte’s lives, that while modern, seems simple and lovely, that the relationship is strong enough to deal with the loss of his job at the timber-mill and even their community, as they leave the town one by one. Combined with the opulence of Neilson’s estate, much of the film drifts in and out of close-ups, focusing on its characters, accenting their thoughts (though trending too close to Malickian dreamscapes, and some of the editing touches border the line of pretentiousness) and how each of their situations are changing for better and definitely for worse.
It starts to affect Hedvig’s tentative love-life and her friendships, as much as the world of adults seems to want to destroy, change and mould their children, to the point that Stone gets a bit over the top with his imagery and relating the lives of animals to children, which dampens the interest as the film goes along. While Odessa Young is an interesting presence, the screenplays later drama seems to take her emotionally intelligent performance into simplistic Greek drama. The character of Christian is also affected by this drama as well as Schneider struggles to control the power of his character, sometimes being overly emotional or overly callous at times, that they seem to act as tools for the story than breathing characters. The question remains that if you were to tell a secret to someone that is deeply personal, does the truth really set free or does a comfortable lie better to deal with? This film does not try to answer the this question too much, but then it isn’t about that per say, but rather the world we create for ourselves that dictate what we get from this world. Rush and Neill, as the veteran performers in the cast, bring a class and a pathos, seeing their regrets and trying to make do, ultimately being the audience and the harbingers of their mistakes, both as victims, perpetrators and witnesses, realising but not being able to impart the simple knowledge that love and acceptance is better than self-aggrandisement and having the world on your platter.
The couple’s relationship is a view into a simple humanity, and it is probably the most pleasant thing and the worst thing to experience in a film, because it is the thing that can be damaged the most. Human live is small, fragile and can be gone in the moment, so Stone concentrates between one family that is strong and natural, and the other seen as decadent and corrupting. Ewen Leslie is a revelation, and his contrasting relationship with Paul Schneider’s character powers most of the brewing tension of the secret, the releasing of hell that will be irrevocable, meanwhile Miranda Otto brings an emotional intelligence to her role as she looks into the abyss and in full knowledge of how bad everything can be. If there is one thing the film does very well, is to make you think about your life, how we conduct ourselves and what damage can be done to our relationships in the face of unspoken words… and if it is worth the time to speak about them.
Simon Stone’s debut falls for the usual problems that come with a début, that of trying to be showy and melodramatic, when being understated can be twice as effective, but it shows promise for his future films when he can anchor a film with great performances and a great use of atmosphere, and that his next film will prove that he might be comparable to Peter Weir.
RATING: THREE STARS.