The ads for the new Australian film The Daughter are proudly informing us that the film comes from the same producer who gave us The Piano and Lantana. And that’s some pedigree. Lantana and The Piano were both distinguished Australian films (though the Kiwis shared some credit for The Piano), but what’s this about the “producer”? With all due respect to Jan Chapman, the producer of The Daughter, producers don’t make films. They raise the money for them, hire the main players, acquire all the rights and turn up to collect any best-picture gongs on Oscar night, but they don’t make the movie. Sam Goldwyn was one of the great Hollywood producers, but he didn’t make The Best Years of Our Lives (that was left to William Wyler), and who remembers Goldwyn anyway for Roseanne McCoy or The Adventures of Marco Polo?
I make this rather obvious point to make the equally obvious point that whatever we may think of The Daughter, credit or blame for the finished film must lie with Simon Stone, the director (who also wrote the screenplay). It’s a visually stunning work , finely acted by a remarkable cast, and set in an unidentified region of rural Australia. So full marks to the cinematographer, Andrew Commis, and actors of the calibre of Sam Neill (who starred in The Piano) and Geoffrey Rush (who starred in Lantana). Stone’s screenplay was “inspired” by Henrik Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck, which Stone adapted for a production at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre in 2011. Based on my dim memories of that occasion, the stage production departed freely from Ibsen’s play and the film version departs from it even further – which pretty much absolves Ibsen from any responsibility for the movie.
There are some resemblances, of course. Put crudely, this is a film about a daughter and a duck, in which both have prominent roles and can be seen as complementary elements in the fabric of the story. The daughter is 16-year-old Hedwig (Odessa Young), whose mother Charlotte (Miranda Otto) teaches at the local school. The duck, which we meet in the opening scene, has been wounded by a bullet fired by Geoffrey Rush’s character, Henry, who owns the local timber mill and is about to marry his much younger bride and former housekeeper (Anna Torv). Everyone is gathering for a fancy wedding. The duck, meanwhile, is rescued and nursed back to health by Walter (Sam Neill), the father of Oliver (Ewen Leslie), who is married to Charlotte.
I confess that the details of these relationships eluded me at first (narrative lucidity isn’t the film’s most obvious virtue), but we are left in no doubt that Walter is a nice guy. He lives in a splendid mansion that looks more like a colonial palace than a country homestead, and runs a sanctuary for wounded animals – a sort of “unofficial RSPCA”, as he calls it. (I doubt if Ibsen would have thought of that.) Hedwig, incidentally, is the only character whose name remains unchanged from Ibsen’s play, though I suppose it would seem odd if the horny-handed, bush-dwelling Aussies in the story went around with names Knut, Lars or Thor.
Without trying to summarise all the film’s emotional conflicts, it’s fair to say that nearly everyone is miserable for one reason or another. The plot is replete with disappointments, infidelities, thwarted passions, buried secrets and skeletons in closets. All good, steamy stuff, well matched by the gloom of the surroundings. A mood of desperation is established early on when the timber mill is closed and hundreds of workers find themselves out of a job (timely echoes of recent events in Queensland, though Sam Neill comes across as a more sympathetic boss than Clive Palmer).
Stone made his cinema debut with a miniature piece called Reunion, one of a compilation of 17 short films – or fragments of short films – that made up The Turning, based on a book of stories by Tim Winton. Written by Andrew Upton, Reunion was about a Christmas Day family gathering that gets absurdly out of hand. Praising it at the time, I called it one of the best pieces in The Turning and the only one of the 17 stories with a touch of light-heartedness. And how I longed for a touch of light-heartedness in The Daughter. Stone’s colour palette is unrelievedly dark, his cameras dwelling on rows of deserted shops, empty streets and grim forests of brooding trees, with more than one scene shot in a derelict factory.
The acting honours must go to Odessa Young, who gives a performance of lacerating honesty and pain as the daughter. As for the duck, who is given the name Lucky, I think she shows great promise, and there is no more moving moment in The Daughter when she soars into the sky at the end, as if eager to escape the cauldron of misery and confusion engulfing the rest of the cast. A lucky duck indeed.
The Daughter, rated M, is in national release.
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.