Title: The Daughter
Director: Simon Stone
Major Players: Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Odessa Young
Out Of Five: 2.5
After directing a segment in last year’s Australian portmanteau, The Turning, Simon Stone has released his first full length feature. And it’s not every debut director who can call on star turns like Geoffrey Rush and Sam Neill to grace their cast list. But there’s a sense that he’s also playing it safe, because he’s been on this territory before.
Stone, who also wrote the script for The Daughter, has used Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck as its inspiration, a play that he’s already directed on the stage. Now he’s updated it to the 21st century and re-located it to Australia, even though you’d think it was somewhere in Northern Europe.
Henry (Geoffrey Rush) is about to marry his second, and much younger, wife when his son Christian (Paul Schneider) arrives for the ceremony. Theirs is a distant and tetchy relationship, so when he bumps into old school friend, Oliver (Ewen Leslie) he spends more time at his friend’s house than his father’s. But Christian’s personal troubles soon start to surface and he delivers a hammer blow to both families in the shape of a long-buried secret that has repercussions for everybody.
Some things are all-too-obvious right from the start. Such as the film’s very Scandi style. The landscape looks nothing like Australia, or at least the usual image of the country. No beaches here, no scorching sunshine, but vast pine forests, lakes, low hanging cloud and even rain. And the clouds make the landscape look brooding so the film a sense of gloom and foreboding. The sun hardly gets a look-in
Even more obvious is the analogy with the duck. It’s shot down in the opening scene of the film, but Henry can’t bear to kill it, so Oliver’s aging dad, Walter (Sam Neill) takes it to his menagerie in the hope of bringing it back to health. He’s got other animals there as well – a monkey, a kangaroo, a rabbit – all of which have been injured in one way or another. He and his granddaughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young), have nursed them all. But, as the duck lies injured on the ground, we’re all wondering who is going to turn out to be the human duck. It doesn’t take long for the penny to drop, although finding out why takes a bit longer. But it’s always obvious where the story is headed.
The two families seem to be permanently connected by an invisible thread. Oliver works at Henry’s lumber yard but is out of a job when it has to close. It’s a victim of the recession, just like the nearby town, which has a high street full of boarded up shops. But the connection goes back even further, because Henry and Walter used to be business partners: it all ended with Walter going to prison for fraud and taking the fall for Henry, who’d been careful that his name wasn’t on any of the paperwork. He’s tried to put things right with money, including a generous pension for Walter, but it doesn’t make up for what happened. The connection continues down the generations, with the friendship between Christian and Oliver and Charlotte, Oliver’s wife, working for Henry as his housekeeper, but before her marriage.
The shadow of Ibsen hangs heavily over the production and it’s not to its benefit. Despite the repeated landscape shots, it still feels very stage bound and restricted by its origins. While some scenes have been expanded into other locations – the school, the supermarket – they’re still effectively interiors. However, the sense of claustrophobia that comes with it actually works: the families are, although they would never say as much, at war and Christian’s revelation just makes it worse. You may be able to guess what it is, but his motives are suspect which makes it difficult to sympathise with him. He could be seen as high-minded, a seeker of truth, but I’m not so sure. This is a man consumed with self-pity, who blames his father for the death of his mother and left home as a result. He also has a drink problem and drops his bomb when he’s had a skinful. But he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s not about truth. It’s about revenge.
Overall, the film is a slow-burn – sometimes too slow – but its biggest problem is that it’s very heavy handed. So much so that you can never feel fully involved with what’s happening on the screen. It doesn’t quite descend into soap, but I swear I spotted the occasional touch of lather.
The Daughter is released in cinemas on Friday, 27 May and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 26 May.