Simon Stone’s The Daughter

The Daughter, a film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck by director Simon Stone, is a bleak, beautiful film. Make no mistake, it is dark, miserable, and, by the end, close to hopeless, but it is so wonderfully crafted and meaningful that it is worth the sadness.

The film follows Christian (Paul Schneider), who travels to his small hometown in Australia for the wedding of his father Henry, played by Geoffrey Rush, to his housekeeper. However, Christian’s return brings to light a number of secrets from the past, which threaten to destroy not only his family, but also his old friend Oliver (Ewan Leslie), Oliver’s wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), and their teenage daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young). Alongside the main storyline, Hedvig and her grandfather Walter (Sam Neill) rescue an injured duck, shot by Henry, and nurse it back to health.

The performances are all solid, but Young is particularly impressive – with her relatively limited years and experience, playing such an important and emotional role in the film must have been a big ask, and she carries it admirably. The film (and presumably the play upon which it is based) explore big themes of family and betrayal, through a study of a number of fascinating and complex characters. Christian is trapped in the past, unable to move past the trauma that affected him as an adolescent, while Oliver is, at least initially, a wonderfully content character. His life has not turned out as expected – once top of his class, he is working at Henry’s failing lumber mill, the main employer in the town – but he is not disappointed. He loves his daughter and wife ferociously, and is happy with his life as it stands, which is exactly what makes the progression of his story so utterly devastating.

The setting is not one which is often seen in Australia films – when our filmmakers want to show the harsh, terrible beauty of the wilderness, they tend to look to the deserts. But The Daughter, which was filmed in New South Wales, looks to the foggy, atmospheric forests of our mountainous regions. The landscape is stunning, but also unsettling – dark and quiet, brooding. It looks colder than our movies often do, perhaps echoing the original setting of the play, in Ibsen’s home country of Norway. It’s unmistakeably Australian, and yet somehow impossible to place, and so universal, all at the same time.

The crafting of the film is also exceptional. Stone clearly entered this new medium (he was previously a theatre director) ready to make use of the unique tools it gives him to work with. In particular, which regularly misaligns visuals and dialogue, creates a very interesting effect. For example, a scene in which Christian speaks to his father, and then walks away across the garden, is split up, so we see him leaving halfway through their talk. This is in many ways an illustration of the character’s internal state, shown along with his external presentation, a trick which provides the audience with a huge amount of information about the character, and which could not really be utilized in any medium except film.

The Daughter is an exceptional first feature for the director, and overall just a beautiful film. It isn’t easy to watch, illustrating as it does the destruction of multiple innocent lives, pulling them to pieces almost in slow-motion, but it tells a brutally heartfelt story which reaches right down into the depths of human cruelty and complexity.

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