“I don’t ever want to grow up,” says a drunken Christian (Paul Schneider) after an evening carousing with childhood best friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie). And you can see how in that maudlin state he might long for the simplicity and security of childhood again. But it’s also true that, as Oliver replies flippantly “It’s too late”—they have both grown up, into very different men. Simon Stone‘s “The Daughter” is a sensitive and cinematic exploration of those differences, and a tale of fathers disappointing their sons and sons resenting their fathers, with the titular daughter, Hedvig (excellent newcomer Odessa Young) representing the best chance of breaking that cycle. But for Christian, it is too late—the past has already made him what he is, and now that his present is crumbling (with a wife at home in the States who is leaving him, a drinking problem he is re-embracing and a paternal relationship stressed to breaking point by several revelations surrounding his mother’s suicide), it only remains for him to find a way to screw up his future. Or if not his, anyone’s will do.
Theater director Stone’s film directorial debut, “The Daughter” is adapted from the stage version of Ibsen‘s “The Wild Duck” which he himself mounted to widespread acclaim in Australia. So his deep familiarity with the material is to be expected, and indeed he clearly knows every tick of the story, every unspoken current of envy or bitterness and every beat of his characters’ hearts to perfection, and can elicit great, subtle performances to embody them. What is more surprising is that the film bears no trace of its stage-bound origins, with Stone making the transition to screen in rich, resonant and resolutely cinematic fashion, perfectly complemented by DP Andrew Commis‘ restrained, evocative framing and subdued, elegant palette. The landscapes have an appropriately wild, widescreen bleakness to them, but the interiors, particularly where he shoots faces in the foreground while the busy background falls away out of focus, are really where the story is told. That is appropriate because it is a film about interiority: the secrets we can conceal inside and the deep-buried resentments that rankle away in there, perhaps dormant, unknown even to ourselves, until they are awoken.
Christian has returned to his childhood home in Australia to attend the marriage of his father Henry (Geoffrey Rush), wealthy mill owner and town bigwig, to his much younger ex-housekeeper (“Fringe“‘s Anna Torv). While home he reconnects with his high school buddy Oliver, meets Oliver’s wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), his father Walter (Sam Neill) who is an old associate of Henry’s, and Oliver’s lovely, bright, beloved daughter Hedvig. Oliver has just been laid off as a result of Henry closing the mill, but his home life is a happy one, and he knows that he is lucky. But as Christian’s own personal life collapses, he divines a past transgression that could destroy Oliver’s family and threatens to reveal it, sanctimoniously and self-deludingly preaching that Oliver “deserves to know” the truth. But, as you practically want to scream at the screen, Oliver is such a good person, so genuine and kind and loving, that he actually deserves not to know. The only thing that will be satisfied by the ruination of his equanimity in the name of honesty is that little knot of malice that exists inside Christian. Misery loves company, and will create it if necessary.
The performances are strong, with Odessa Young, who was the high watermark of Sue Brooks‘ Venice competition film “Looking For Grace,” even better here as Hedvig, a teenager going through her own coming of age, but one still young enough to have a close, conspiratorial relationship with her adored dad. Ewen Leslie matches her as Oliver—he had played the role on stage and seems to inhabit it completely naturally. Otto, Neill, Rush and Torv all have smaller, though still pivotal roles and all are compelling, with Rush especially charismatic as the wealthy, chilly and perhaps ruthless Henry. If there are stumbles at all they come in the rare histrionics that Schneider’s Christian has to negotiate, but then his character is so fundamentally wrong-headed in his actions, and selfish in his motivations that certainly by the end, we can hardly even be meant to sympathize with him.
There are a few flourishes that might feel overly on the nose if they were handled differently. Walter and Hedvig run a sort of makeshift zoo for wounded animals, and early on they get a new one, a duck that Henry had clipped but not killed while hunting. The metaphor might be a heavy-handed one, but it is not overplayed and a climactic scene in which Hedvig desperately tries to get the duck to fly again is surprisingly wrenching. A mid-air coin-toss finale somehow manages to not feel like a cop out, but a necessarily ambivalent coda in which the characters, all caught up in their personal dramas and anguish by this point, can realize that it is the most blameless player in their game of secrets and lies who will be the most affected.
A highly polished film that belies the soap opera melodrama of its plotline by having the twists and turns spring directly from well-observed human behavior, Stone’s “The Daughter” is a quiet, immensely affecting triumph that proves how, contrary to accepted wisdom, there are secrets that would better remain untold. [B+]