Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2015: "The Daughter"

Michael Hayward

My first thought after emerging from the harrowing Australian drama that is The Daughter was: “It turns out that, if you take as the plot for your film an emotionally fraught Scandinavian play which features intergenerational betrayal, buried secrets, fragile relationships and damaged friendships, possible infidelity, throw in an inauspiciously accessible shotgun presented in the first act, and set it (as most Nordic plays would be set) in a dark, cold, isolated locale, a small town where the characters cannot escape any of the above, would marinate in it, brood about these things for years; and if you relocate that volatile and toxic mixture to the southern hemisphere, well, then: you still have an emotionally fraught Scandinavian drama.”

Of course Ibsen's The Wild Duck (the play which “inspired” The Daughter) does not contain all of these elements, but when I reviewed the plot of The Wild Duck I found that it is even more tortured, even more of an emotional wringer than the film that it inspired. In fact, compared to the plot of The Wild Duck, The Daughter is almost sedate.

And it turns out that Scandinavia might not have an exclusive as the setting for brooding dramas. Australia also has isolated towns inhabited by families with buried secrets which are like grenades that will inevitably, unavoidably, detonate in the third act, scattering emotional shrapnel in all directions. Or, at any rate, The Daughter makes you believe that Australia could have all of this, somewhere. Perhaps director Simon Stone is destined to become the Ingmar Bergman of the Antipodes; there are certainly worse things to aspire to. This is just Stone's first feature film (apparently he was a theatre director originally), so it's still a bit early to say. At any rate he’s done an excellent job here.

A basic overview of the plot: prodigal son returns to small town to be best man at the second wedding of the father, whom the prodigal blames for the death by suicide of his mother many years ago. Father is rich and powerful, and not much liked in his community because he’s just closed the sawmill which is the town’s major employer. Prodigal reconnects with his old drinking buddy, once a promising student until he got derailed by circumstances, now married and more stable, and father to the daughter of the movie’s title. Turns out that prodigal’s father had his finger in more pies (so to speak) than most people were aware; prodigal son acts as the catalyst for much unraveling.

The main thing that The Daughter has in its favour, the factor which will pull in audiences and lead to awards nominations, is a string of strong performances by powerhouse actors like Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Miranda Otto, and by relative newcomer Odessa Young, who is excellent in a demanding role as the eponymous daughter. Ewen Leslie is also excellent in his role as her father.

The Daughter manages to stop just shy of being a melodrama (although, on further reflection, maybe it didn't quite manage to stop short of that line). Yes: there is a time and place for melodrama. But I can’t help but wonder whether today’s film audiences, more accustomed to superhero films, or to “rom coms,” have as much appetite for Scandinavian-style melodrama (even transplanted) as they did in the 1960s and 1970s when Bergman was God.



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