The Daughter (2015)

Keep your family close and your secrets closer.

Themes of self-delusion, shame and revenge are all prevalent in Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, however the most interesting idea behind the tragic 1884 play is the notion of truth — particularly that inner tug-of-war that breaks out when we’re burdened with the choice of either concealing vs. revealing it. Following Australian playwright Simon Stone’s take on the material, which he modernized for Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theater back in 2011 (a show that went on to receive widespread acclaim, touring Oslo, Vienna, Amsterdam and even London’s Barbican Center), it’s no wonder the 31-year-old has decided to tackle the text yet again. This time around Stone — whose only other film credit includes the sub-par segment ‘Reunion’ from Tim Winton’s The Turning (2013) — has delivered an entirely fresh spin on the classic story in his first feature The Daughter, which explores how a dormant deep-buried secret can ultimately destroy the lives of, not one, but many.

Opening in the dying days of a struggling Australian logging community, writer-director Stone sets his picture in-between two contrasting camps. Embodying the well to do, we have the town bigwig Henry (Geoffrey Rush), a wealthy timber mill owner who is about to marry his much younger ex-housekeeper Anna (Anna Torv); on the other side of the fence we have Henry’s former friend and ruined business associate Walter (Sam Neill), whose good-natured son Oliver (Ewen Leslie) works at Henry’s logging factory, while Oliver’s wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto) teaches at the local high school. The ‘wild duck’ of the picture is the young Hedvig (Odessa Young), Charlotte and Oliver’s teenage daughter — an innocent who is broken (beyond repair) by the ramifications of a devastating truth that is unearthed.

When things look down ... look up!
When things look down … look up!

Still resentful towards his mogul dad (whom he blames for his mother’s long ago suicide), recovering alcoholic Christian (American actor Paul Schneider) sets the wheels in motion when he returns to the unnamed Australian town to attend his father’s wedding ceremony after spending sixteen years abroad. While visiting, Christian reconnects with his old Uni buddy Oliver and spends time with his former friend’s family, mainly his pink-haired daughter Hedvig. Envious of Oliver’s loving surroundings, the unhappy Christian (whose world begins to crumble) threatens to divulge a dangerous secret; one that could tear said family apart. Playing the old ‘Oliver deserves to know’ card, with a hint of deeply embedded malice, the miserable Christian decides to damage the world that he left behind, his spite hitting the blameless party hardest; as English naturalist John Ray once said, ‘misery loves company.’

Making an almost seamless transition from theater to screen (The Daughter never feels stagey), director Stone delivers a rich, melancholy backdrop with foggy Gothic-style landscapes and towering trees, all of which engulf the still wintery terrain. The restrained cinematography by Andrew Commis, The Rocket (2013), is equally as striking, his evocative images integrating well with the narrative’s underlying sense of unease, whereas editor Veronika Jenet, The Piano (1993), artfully overlays sound with picture (deliberately not in sync) in a dynamic, fresh and stunning way. Steering this bitter vessel is Stone, whose familiarity with the material (he clearly knows this story back to front) ensures that his cast of impressive Aussie A-listers deliver powerful but subtle performances.

Relative newcomer Odessa Young, Looking for Grace (2015), is excellent as Hedvig, a teen who’s retained an affable close-loving relationship with her dad, even whilst coming of age. Ewen Leslie, The Mule (2014), bounces well off his younger co-star as Hedvig’s bearded father Oliver, the pair’s relationship really selling the piece; fun fact, Leslie actually played the same character on stage, which is probably why he portrays the guy so naturally. Paul Schneider, Lars and the Real Girl (2007), is certainly the weakest link here as the selfish pigheaded Christian, Schneider having to navigate through his character’s complex motivations, even so, he still receives a pass. Elsewhere Sam Neill, The Dish (2000), is a welcome presence as Hedvig’s grandfather Walter, a broken man who runs a makeshift type zoo where he rehabilitates wounded animals whilst the iconic Geoffrey Rush, The Book Thief (2013), is wonderfully intimidating as the chilly tycoon Henry, the guy behind all the ruin.

'I'm sorry, are the Academy calling me again?'
‘I’m sorry, are the Academy calling me again?’

The Daughter only stumbles when it comes to its sometimes-obvious metaphors and blatant symbolism, chiefly that of a wounded duck with a clipped wing that Henry takes in for recovery. Representing different ideas for each character (the most obvious being freedom and captivity) this allegory is at least never overdone. What’s more, the narrative’s soap opera angle (all the ‘Who slept with whom?’ stuff) refrains from seeping too far into cheap melodrama, with filmmaker Stone more focused on human behavior opposed to blatant dramatization. Keeping this in mind, the final act could prove too bleak for some; this probably explains the ambiguity of the picture’s last shot which allows viewers to come to their own conclusions as to the fate of certain characters — heck, even a conventional happy ending could be possible (albeit unlikely).

Produced by Jan Chapman, The Piano (1993), a name synonymous with quality homegrown entertainment, The Daughter (while far from perfect) is a tense, challenging, and wonderfully crafted feature (from a first-time director too, mind you), and a triumph for Australian filmmaking. Concluding in a turn of events that’s sure to stun, this slow burning drama illustrates the heavy-handed reality that certain secrets should remain buried.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

The Daughter is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia