'The Daughter': Sydney Review

Well-acted but unconvincing. 

Sydney theatre wunderkind Simon Stone makes his debut as writer-director with an adaptation of Ibsen’s "The Wild Duck."

Simon Stone’s stage adaptation of The Wild Duck opened in Sydney in 2011 before touring to Oslo, Vienna and most recently to London, where it played a season at the Barbican last year to raves. Stone’s idiomatic interpretation took place on a mostly unadorned stage, and regularly brought hardy theatergoers to tears.

The Daughter is Stone’s adaptation of his adaptation. The action has been moved to an Australian logging town that’s seen better days, with a main drag of boarded-up shop fronts and disused factories. Henry (a stiller-than-usual Geoffrey Rush) is the owner of the local mill. We first see him informing his workers that the mill is closing and they’re out of jobs. A cheerful type named Oliver (Ewen Leslie) seems to take the news in his stride. Oliver is the boyhood friend of Henry’s son Christian (Paul Schneider, retaining his own American accent), who returns home for the first time in fifteen years to attend his father’s wedding to the improbably glamorous housekeeper (Anna Torv).

For its first two-thirds, The Daughter is the story of Christian, whose festering resentment of his adulterous father has driven him to the bottle and plagued his adult relationships. At a welcome-home cook-up, Christian meets Oliver’s wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), his father, the endearingly gruff Walter (Sam Neill), and his daughter, Hedvig (the very fine Odessa Young). When he hears that Charlotte used to work as his father’s housekeeper, a glimmer of recognition – and of bile – flickers across Christian's face, and his determination to tell the truth whatever the cost will turn Oliver’s world upside down. As Don LaFontaine would have put it: nothing will ever be the same.

Once Christian has set these escalating revelations in motion, however, the film jettisons him. His sidelining seems inevitable: called on to alternately look mopey or drip-feed the audience back story, Christian never emerges as much of a character in his own right. Any contemporary interpretation of Ibsen risks teetering on the edge of overwrought melodrama, and The Daughter plummets into the void early, when Christian confronts his father at the dinner table. His future mother-in-law is sent outside by Rush’s Henry (charmless and weary, the biggest mystery about him is just what all these women seem so enamored of) while Christian thunders at his father for betraying his mother, who long ago committed suicide. The emotions are big but unearned; we’ve barely had a chance to figure out who’s who, much less care about them.

These scenes – long, talky confrontations – are also where the story’s theatrical DNA is most apparent. Stone and his talented DP Andrew Commis (Beautiful Kate) shoot them in jagged handheld, but no amount of vérité camerawork can obscure all the verbiage, which is all fairly boilerplate anyway – “How could you do this to me? How could you do this to somebody you love?” When the camera is not stalking the characters in close-up a la le Dardennes, we get painterly landscape shots, which are gorgeous but relied on so regularly as interstitial filler that they become trite, devoid of meaning.

A fatalistic story like this, in which the full picture is parceled out incrementally, requires a delicate touch if we’re to believe it – not just a sense of when to withhold and when to reveal, but how to do so in a way that feels organic. Stone’s editor, Veronika Jenet, did it masterfully in The Snowtown Murders (2011). But The Daughter’s screenplay is baldly expositional throughout. Oliver and Christian visit their old college, where Oliver drunkenly recalls how he dropped out and went to pieces when his father was thrown in jail. Given Christian attended university with him, you’d think he wouldn’t need to be told.

It’s a shame, because the performances are uniformly affecting, particularly by Ewen Leslie as Oliver, whose decency makes the pain he endures all the more wrenching. Or it would, if you believed any of it; Oliver’s total rejection of his beloved Hedvig late in the piece feels particularly contrived. Whereas a film like Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father Like Son (2013) – another portrait of unraveling paternal identity – started with the twist and then teased out its implications, The Daughter spends most of its time following a recessive character who possesses information we’re not privy to, and the whole thing manages to be both remote and unsubtle simultaneously. Likewise Mark Bradshaw’s oppressive, insistently underlining score – which says it all, then says it again.

Production Companies: Jan Chapman Films, Wildflower Films

Cast: Paul Schneider, Ewen Leslie, Geoffrey Rush, Mirando Otto, Anna Torv, Odessa Young, Sam Neill

Writer/Director: Simon Stone

Producers: Jan Chapman, Nicole O’Donohue

Director of Photography: Andrew Commis

Production Designer: Steven Jones-Evans

Costume Designer: Margot Wilson

Editor: Veronika Jenet

Sound Designer: Liam Egan

Composer: Mark Bradshaw

Casting Director: Nikki Barrett

Sales: Mongrel International


No rating, 96 minutes