The end of an idyll

Katerina Sakkas: Simon Stone’s The Daughter

The Daughter

The Daughter

There’s a slight danger when a highly regarded artist in another medium makes a feature film that the result will fail to meet expectations raised by the artist’s expertise in their accustomed field. Novelist Julia Leigh’s thematically interesting yet aesthetically flat Sleeping Beauty (2011), which she both wrote and directed, is a recent case in point. Theatre director Simon Stone, simultaneously acclaimed and criticised for his signature reinterpretations of classic plays, dispels this fear with a cinematically assured debut feature, following an initial experience directing one of the short films that make up The Turning anthology (2013); Stone also has a background as a film and TV actor.

The Daughter is an extension of Stone’s customary theatrical practice, being loosely based on his stage production of The Wild Duck, itself a significant reworking of Ibsen’s play. The film presents us with a similar array of characters: Geoffrey Rush’s unendearing landowner, Henry Neilson, whose impending nuptials follow the closure of his timber mill (which heralds the town’s demise); Christian (Paul Schneider), his returned estranged son; Sam Neill’s broken patriarch Walter, who lives with his happily married son Oliver (Ewen Leslie)—a far more sympathetic character than Ibsen’s Hjalmar Ekdal—daughter-in-law Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and their luminous daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young), possessor of the wild duck.

Despite the reinvention of the story as a contemporary Australian scenario, the narrative set-up still suggests a theatrical, larger-than-life contrivance, a sense of archetypes being brought together to lock horns; the title itself bears this out. The Daughter is more mythic than naturalistic, beautifully realised in Andrew Commis’ cinematography which, with its sylvan scenes of mist-shrouded woods and lakeside landscape (alpine scenery that recalls the Scandinavian setting of the source material) coupled with the elegiac appeal of the rapidly depopulating Australian country town, creates a domain that seems to hover fantastically outside time and place. Hedvig has a tryst with her boyfriend in a massive grove of towering trees. Characters laugh and argue in darkened interiors that are softened and dreamlike. Much of the film takes place at dusk, or later. Imminent betrayal and destruction loom like storm clouds over this Edenic locale, a microcosm of which is found in the small bushland animal sanctuary created by Hedvig and her grandfather.

Anti-naturalistic too is the film’s minimalist use of sound. The most heightened scenes of anger, sadness and bliss are characterised by the deliberate avoidance of diegetic sound, with the occasional exception of the merest hint of a heartbeat. In one slowed-down sequence, Hedvig is pulled behind a speedboat, reclining and laughing, the silence that blankets the scene lending a transcendent serenity. A less effective decision, perhaps, was to have dialogue frequently overlapping two or more scenes. There’s an interesting initial fluidity to this, but the more it’s repeated, the more it seems like an affectation with no deeper significance.

The Daughter

The Daughter

The Daughter shows its dramatic heritage in a range of emotions writ large. Ewen Leslie’s Oliver is an exuberant jokester whose warm-hearted devotion to his family somewhat belies his behaviour towards the end of the film, even considering the revelation which prompts it. Paul Schneider skilfully conveys the darkness that can emerge when good intentions are perverted by despair, while Neill’s performance as the eccentric Walter is engaging and comparatively understated. Odessa Young, an impressive new performer who was also very strong in Sue Brooks’ Looking for Grace (2015), is a standout, embodying Hedvig’s youthful passion with utter conviction.

While Miranda Otto and Anna Torv make a pair of graceful spouses to Oliver and Neilson respectively, their characters aren’t written with a great deal of complexity. Not even skeletons in her closet can make Otto’s decent, loving Charlotte (an interesting diversion from Ibsen’s Gina, who exists more solidly as her own person) much more than a foil to her husband and, to a lesser extent, her daughter.

As events spiral towards a drastic denouement, the cinematography begins to mirror what’s happening, moving away from still, stately shots to handheld camerawork that captures the agitation of a husband’s confrontation of his wife. Towards the end, some of The Daughter’s fine cinematic sensibility is marred by histrionics (a contrast with the deliberate suppression of sound in previous scenes). This excessiveness makes it a little harder to invest in each character’s personal fate. Yet the powerful atmosphere evoked over the course of the film, of an idyllic community slowly leaking its lifeblood, ensures The Daughter’s overarching theme of innocence lost is ever striking and tangible.

The Daughter, writer, director Simon Stone, cinematography Andrew Commis, production design Steven Jones-Evans, art direction Maxine Dennett, editing Veronika Jenet, score Mark Bradshaw, distributor Roadshow Films, 2016

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016, web

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

6 April 2016