A group of old friends sit around a campfire. The mood is one of jovial recollection and reconnection, but as feather-light embers flit away into the night sky secrets lurk in the darkness that envelops them. A meandering tale into the unknown, of long-buried truths, parenthood and troubled filial relationships, The Daughter is a haunting and confidently-composed feature debut by Australian filmmaker and theatre man Simon Stone. The young director, who here further moulds his own stage adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck into a fearsome family drama, makes the transition to big screen seamlessly.
Torrents of water have already passed under the bridge as a rifle round rings out across a misty, ominously grey New South Wales town. Henry (a weary, downtrodden but ever-watchable Geoffrey Rush) stands over a duck whose wing he has clipped. Unable to take responsibility for putting the bird out of its misery, the animal finds its way into the kindly hands of local Doctor Dolittle, Walter (Sam Neill, who cuts a bumbling, rough-round-the-edges figure). Without being too weighed down in metaphors of mercy, the actions of one patriarch, who causes problems without solving them, towards another, who picks up the pieces, sets the tone for what follows and what has evidently gone before. The past inexorably seeps into the present as Henry prepares to wed his 30-something trophy wife, Anna (Anna Torv). Revealed with steady drips etched on anguished faces, nervous glances and hushed phone calls, the arrival of prodigal, estranged son Christian (a strong turn by Paul Schneider who retains his American accent) sets the ball rolling.
A chance meeting with boyhood friend Oliver (a tremendous Ewen Leslie), who has recently lost his job at Henry’s sawmill, allows Christian to meet his family: wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and all-important daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young), a tom boy with pink hair, nose ring, as much intelligence as attitude and who, in her middle teens, is moving towards womanhood. Though no character is necessarily given the lead, Young’s performance blends adolescent feistiness and desperate confusion superbly. Away from the deadpan humour and witty interplay of a doting father and loving daughter there is a persistent, but intangible, sense of dread. Stone introduces alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide and a jail term into the mix but although it may sound like a soap opera plot to rival Neighbours or Home and Away, the director demonstrates an understated maturity, allowing each element to hit home, nothing superfluous or included for purely shock value.
Mark Bradshaw’s score is never intrusive or overbearing, full of deep strings and harsh piano chords, complimenting the beautiful, sombre tones chosen by cinematographer Andrew Commis. Though very definitely located – or at least shot – in rural NSW, the people of this unnamed village leave town to work “up north”, attend interviews “in the city” and go away “to the lake” for the weekend, lending this tale of familial struggle and conflict a definite universality. Benefitting from a uniformly superb ensemble cast, and stellar work from his composer and director of photography, Stone has realised a very fine first film. The Daughter is a must-see.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens