'Daphne': Film Review | Rotterdam 2017

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Likeable miniature built around a beguiling central performance.

Emily Beecham and Geraldine James star in Peter Mackie Burns' London-set drama, which premiered in a sidebar at the Netherlands festival.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar meets Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret on the streets of 21st century London in Peter Mackie Burns' disarming debut Daphne, the intimate character study of a 31-year-old singleton who goes off the rails after witnessing a random act of violence. First and foremost, it's a cracking little showcase for rising British actress Emily Beecham, who's seldom offscreen for long as the tale's lively, complex, intriguing quasi-heroine.

A low-key but promising first feature from Mackie Burns, winner of the Berlinale Golden Bear in 2005 for his short Milk, it is essentially an expansion of his 11-minute Happy Birthday to Me (2013), reuniting the Scot with Beecham and writer Nico Mensinga. Limited U.K. theatrical play is a given for this well-connected low-budgeter — from the same production team as Andrew Haigh's 45 Years — in the wake of a warmly received Rotterdam bow. 

Half-American Beecham held her own against some high-caliber veterans when starring opposite Brenda Blethyn, Susannah York and Rita Tushingham in Jan Dunn's U.K. indie The Calling back in 2009, a role that might have been expected to open more doors than it did. Since then, she's mainly worked on British TV, though fleetingly appeared in the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar! and now has a prominent recurring role on AMC's post-apocalyptic martial arts saga Into the Badlands.

As half-Sicilian Daphne Vitale, Beecham etches a compelling portrait of a smart young(ish) woman in the bustling, somewhat impersonal British capital. Though there are occasional lapses, Mensinga generally has a strong ear for contemporary dialogue and the dynamics of modern-day bedrooms, bars and workplaces. Shades of Girls are clearly far from accidental here, and Lena Dunham's smash HBO show is certainly a much closer comparison than the more broadly comic Bridget Jones trilogy.

Living alone in a small, cozy apartment with only her pet snake Scratch for company — the critter's burnt-umber coloration a neat match for its pale-and-interesting owner's striking Titian tresses — Daphne's closest human relationship is with her flinty, free-spirited, cancer-patient mother Rita (45 Years' Geraldine James, notably well-cast).

Sufficiently intellectual to giggle dismissively when reading a Zizek paperback ("Doughnut!"), restaurant employee Daphne is a happy-go-lucky hedonist largely content to freewheel through a life of casual sex, recreational drugs ("Whenever I do coke, I think about Freud") and flip cynicism. But when she happens to be present at a botched convenience-store robbery, the bloody incident triggers a form of PTSD whose lingering effects prove unexpectedly destabilizing.

Daphne hits the bottle increasingly hard and plunges into Goodbar-style ill-advised sexual encounters, blithely rebuffing the persistent affections of nice-guy potential-boyfriend David (Nathaniel Martello-White). Chats with a sympathetic shrink (Stuart McQuarrie) gradually lead to greater self-awareness ("I don't feel much ... I haven't felt like I'm alive in a long time") and a possible escape route from her downward spiral.

While the broad outline of their story has certain similarities to the magnificent Margaret, Mensinga and Mackie Burns — whose sole previous feature-length credit was the experimental urban documentary Come Closer (2011) — don't aim for anything like the novelistic-operatic sweep of Lonergan's relatively little-seen (but far superior) predecessor to Manchester by the Sea.

Edited by the experienced hand Nick Emerson (Starred Up, Lady Macbeth), the pic clocks in at a brisk 87 minutes, less than half of Margaret's sprawling three hours, maintaining a profitably tight focus on the eponymous heroine throughout while unflashily sketching her social and geographic milieux. Competently shot in somewhat superfluous widescreen by cinematographer Adam Scarth, Daphne's potent secret weapon is superlative sound designer Joakim Sundstrom, adding yet another subtly immersive audioscape to his impressive CV.

Production company: The Bureau
Cast: Emily Beecham, Geraldine James, Nathaniel Martello-White, Osy Ikhile, Sinead Matthews, Stuart McQuarrie
Director: Peter Mackie Burns
Screenwriter: Nico Mensinga
Producers: Valentina Brazzini, Tristan Goligher
Executive producer: Robbie Allen, Rosie Crerar, Lizzie Francke, Vincent Gadelle
Cinematographer: Adam Scarth
Production designer: Miren Maranon Tejedor
Costume designer: Lucy McGill
Editor: Nick Emerson
Composer: Sam Beste
Casting directors: Kahleen Crawford, Danny Jackson
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Limelight)
Sales: The Bureau Sales, Paris

87 minutes

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