The Daughter. Directed by Simon Stone. Starring Geoffrey Rush, Paul Schneider, Odessa Young, Ewen Leslie and Sam Neill. Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Closeted skeletons never go out of fashion, as Henrik Ibsen’s 1884 play The Wild Duck and Simon Stone’s new brooding film adaptation prove.
Paternity, scandal and the percolating potential for violence are at the fore of both; the catalyst is the son who returns to his father after a lengthy absence with nothing but bile and subliminal plans for revenge.
Christian (Paul Schneider) arrives in New South Wales from America, back for his father’s wedding to his housekeeper, a decades-younger woman. Sawmill baron Henry (Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush) hopes for reconciliation but Christian still grieves his mother, who committed suicide years previous.
Christian bumps into his old friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie), whose family has more than one tie to his own: Oliver’s dad Walter (Sam Neill) went to jail for helping Henry cook his corporate books, and it is revealed that Oliver’s wife (Miranda Otto, Homeland) was briefly Henry’s housekeeper.
Two pivotal events are Henry’s fault: first, he closes down the sawmill, the heart of the town, setting off an exodus of people leaving to find work. Then there’s the shooting of a duck, which Walter saves and adds to his menagerie of wounded and abandoned animals, housed in a makeshift Eden in the backyard.
The men reminisce in the days leading up to the wedding, while Christian’s agitation over his own deteriorating marriage and his dad’s new one causes him to start drinking again.
Central to everything is Hedvig (Odessa Young), Oliver’s bright, spirited daughter. Oliver is determined that she get out of their stifling town and realize the potential that he squandered. She is happiest hanging out with her boyfriend, or tending to the wounded duck with grandfather Walter.
The film is largely painted in moody blues and greys, near darkness and half-light, while a score by Mark Bradshaw enhances the foreboding. History, recent and past, is doled out in moody increments. One character with nothing to lose selfishly believes catharsis is the best thing for everyone, consequences be damned. There are lots of unexpected twists: we know things will erupt, we just don’t know who will be affected first, or how far it will go.
The notion that one family is doing nothing but harm while another is preventing tragedy and/or picking up the pieces is hammered home several times; then, of course, there’s the metaphor of the duck with the wounded wing. But first-time feature director Stone winds the allegory into scenes of such authenticity that we don’t mind.
The Daughter is further elevated by excellent, natural performances from veterans and newbies alike. Leslie, in particular, delivers a standout portrayal: everyman optimism shattered by unthinkable betrayal.
There is loss of innocence, death, and grief unheeded; of living the life you didn’t expect and the destructive power of secrets. So long as there are people like Stone carefully curating them, such themes will never go out of style.