Review by © Jane Freebury
A forest of tall timbers. Valleys strewn with mist. How readily a Henrik Ibsen classic has been transposed to the wilds of Tasmania, to lend it a Nordic gloom.
Inspired by Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, and from local theatre director, actor, writer and now very talented new recruit to the film industry, Simon Stone, The Daughter is domestic melodrama at its uncompromising best. It shows, as other dramas have shown, how well a dark strain of European drama adapts to the Australian landscape.
Here we have Hedvig (Odessa Young), a teenager with the good fortune of having loving parents who want to be together. The family represents a microcosm of happiness within a community depressed at the closure of its timber mill. Hedvig has a boyfriend, but is especially close to her grandfather whose main occupation, significantly, is rescuing injured wildlife and giving them a second chance. Walter (Sam Neill) is the good patriarch compared to the bastard of a mill owner, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), who lives up the hill.
At first, family joy and harmony course warmly through this chilly drama. Miranda Otto and Ewen Leslie as Charlotte and Oliver, Hedvig’s parents, contribute marvellous natural performances, that are only matched by Young herself. Everything revolves around Hedwig, nature’s child in pink-tipped hair and ripped jeans.
Old Henry, a lugubrious and mannered Rush, is getting married again. The nuptials have lured his estranged son Christian (Paul Schneider) home from overseas, however he is unimpressed that his father’s bride is a much younger woman, formerly the housekeeper. Christian’s temper is made even worse when his own wife informs him via skype from the US that she is leaving him, and he quickly descends into a malevolent force. From this point on, his restraint drops away as he sets about wrecking things, starting with a revelation to Oliver, his childhood friend and mate from university days.
‘You do not need to be scared of the truth’. Christian tries to justify his actions by cloaking them in matters of honesty and principle. And surely rattling an old skeleton in the closet shouldn’t unseat such happiness. Unfortunately for everyone, the immensity of possible collateral damage is no restraint on Christian.
Were it not for the glory of vast exterior locations, the intensity of the enveloping catastrophe would have a dreadful inevitability. After scenes of weaving hand-held inside Henry’s manor, it is great to be able to step outdoors to take in some chilly mountain air. Tension between characters contrasts with the timeless stillness outside, captured time and again in stately location shot. In the editing department, the flourishes of deliberately mismatched image to dialogue is so elegantly done.
And one of the many strengths of this accomplished film is the exquisite naturalism of the interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal exchanges are so entirely believable, Leslie is exceptional here, except for those with Rush’s Henry, who seems to inhabit another film altogether.
The Daughter confirms the promise Odessa Young showed recently in Looking for Grace. The camera has simply to settle on her face to register how much is going on within. A few spare piano notes fill in the rest.
Ultimately, however, the sudden melodramatic turn in events veers away from some, in my view, interesting territory, and what Ibsen was talking about. Had Christian been seen as more the man of principle, however warped, than simply the villain he is here, something closer to the original issue of ‘living a lie’ would have got more of an airing. There was still some conversation here left to run.