The Daughter Simon Stone

The Daughter Simon Stone
Courtesy of TIFF
Before the themes and trajectory of Simon Stone's rather histrionic feature directorial debut, The Daughter (a very loose adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck) become apparent, it shows some promise. Stone, an actor turned director, introduces a tapestry of interrelated characters living a seemingly contented, albeit humble, existence in a rural Australian logging community. His style is loose, yet contemplative and washed out, which suggests that these people — all of whom are portrayed by highly capable actors — are going to face a conflict that's looming beneath the surface. Seemingly, The Daughter is a subtle character drama anchored by performances, which is at least what it attempts to be.
Henry (Geoffrey Rush), the owner of the logging company sustaining this community, simultaneously announces his marriage to the younger Anna (Anna Torv) and the shutting down of the mill. To commemorate this event, his son Christian (Paul Schneider) returns from abroad, striking up an old friendship with Oliver (Ewen Leslie), a man that's now unemployed and looking to provide for his wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young) who, incidentally, is about to lose her boyfriend to the mass emigration of people leaving to find employment elsewhere.
In a broad sense, this premise denotes beginnings and endings. The setting represents death, with rural living coming to an end as everyone flees to the city for survival, while the marriage represents a new beginning. The return of an estranged son reiterates new beginnings and the examination of how the past affects the present. But within this, Stone also includes Ibsen's metaphor of the injured duck — early in the film, Henry injures a duck while hunting and leaves it to Walter (Sam Neill), Oliver's father, to look after — and juxtaposes class systems by mirroring Henry's lavish wedding with the humble existence of his many workers. There's also the issue of Hedvig, the titular character. Presumably, her struggles with first love and identity will have some tie to the unspoken conflict between these two families, which would be reiterated by the duck metaphor.
Unfortunately, once the secret is exposed, one that suggests the rich and privileged create messes for the working class to clean up, The Daughter devolves into an ever-exaggerated series of implausible, highly melodramatic events. The biggest issue with these events is that they derail virtually every theme addressed, muddling the metaphors and themes to a point that only the hint of Ibsen's central challenge — the idea that the truth can actually be a destructive and problematic force best avoided (something contrary to popular morality) — is left standing. Yet, sadly, even that is overshadowed by the manner in which the heightened conclusion is brought about and the many ideas raised that never really go anywhere.
One of the biggest issues is Christian's character. Since his descent into addictive behaviour is so rapid, Schneider really has no option but to portray him in an over-the-top manner. As a character, Christian's motivations are primarily vengeance, but Schneider takes a more erratic, "flawed logic" approach to casually destroying Oliver's life, and since the other actors are mostly subdued and grounded, Schneider's freak-outs and fervent binge-drinking stand out awkwardly. Similarly, once Oliver is left to deal with a perceived betrayal, his dramatic shift in behaviour simply isn't believable. Stone, in trying to make his story work while adhering to the denouement present in The Wild Duck, forces his characters to make unnatural decisions that don't flow with the established logic.
There's also some weirdness in how Hedvig is portrayed. Early in the film, she's arguably raped. It's seemingly there to mirror the loss of innocence with the death of the village, but it eventually becomes a non-issue and doesn't actually have any bearing on the characters or the outcome. It's possible that this event and the advent of her boyfriend leaving town were intended to exaggerate her sense of isolation and abandonment, but based on how the story unfolds and the degree of priority placed on the events, it doesn't play that way, which makes the scene unnecessary.
Quite simply, The Daughter is an interesting concept that's undone by too many ideas thrown together haphazardly. Neill, Leslie, Otto and Torv, in particular, all deliver nuanced, intriguing performances amidst the mess, but are unable to salvage what's ultimately a rather desultory exercise in a "more is more" philosophy. What Stone might want to consider next time out is that having actors scream at the camera is far less effective than using the visual medium and the litany of film techniques available to imply an idea, emotion or concept. (Mongrel Media)