Running time: 96 mins.
Classification: None yet
Adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s play, “The Wild Duck”, “The Daughter” is a punch to the gut of dramatic fireworks. Featuring an all-star cast, including Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto, and a star-making turn from Odessa Young as Hedvig, it’s a slowly boiling kettle of emotional turmoil. Considered one of the greatest playwrights of the 19th Century, rivaled only by Shakespeare in popularity, Ibsen’s source material lends to the proceedings an honest, realistic depiction of life in a small town. There is always the danger that melodrama of this magnitude can come across contrived, with a less subtle director foreshadowing every reveal and telegraphing the emotional punches along the way. For the most part, first-time theater director Simon Stone avoids these traps, although not without some stumbles along the way. It’s a tricky balancing act, and it was hard to tell at the end of the VIFF Festival screening if the audience was emotionally spent, or unconvinced, as the credits rolled over the mostly silent crowd.
Stone previously adapted this material for the Sydney theater, and it’s thespian roots show. It has a literate sensibility, with fantastic writing and dramatic performances all around. Set in a logging town, the serene Australian landscape sets the tone for an intimate, personal drama centered on the family who owns the logging mill, overseen by patriarch Henry, quietly played by Geoffrey Rush. His son Christian (Paul Schneider) returns to town for his father’s wedding to the much younger, beautiful blond housekeeper, Anna Torv, a familiar face to fans of the show “Fringe”. As the story develops, and Christian reunites with best-friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie), and his wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), long buried tensions and old feelings rise to the surface.
Evocative in many ways of classic drama “The Big Chill”, there are genuine moments where each subtle glance, or pause, hints at unspoken histories or traumas shared between the characters. Alongside this personal history, the class and social dynamics of a small town play out, captured in note-perfect ironic detail. We also get a peek at Christian’s unraveling personal life back home in New York, when his ex-wife Grace (Ivy Mak) appears on Skype, delivering a uncharacteristically clunky bit of exposition. The story would have been better served with Grace remaining an off-screen presence, as it doesn’t add to the claustrophobic nature of the small town dynamics building here.
Sam Neil, in another subtle, naturalistic performance, plays Oliver’s dad Walter, the former business partner of logging magnate Henry. As the layers of their past continue to unfold, we discover that Walter, Henry, and their families are intertwined in increasingly complex dynamics that stretch back decades. Christian harbors other demons, including questions about the suicide of his mother at the family estate. Known as the father of theatrical “realism”, Ibsen knew how to use irony and dramatic conflict to build a palpable sense of tension, and the filmmakers wisely follow his structure here.
Throughout, caught in the middle of the angst, and complex social and class undertones, is the namesake of the film, Oliver’s daughter Hedvig. One of the only characters to retain their name from the original Ibsen play, she is played by relative newcomer Odessa Young in a performance that is both a revelation of natural, gut wrenching emotion, along with an achingly awkward coming-of-age story. Like Mena Suvari in “American Beauty”, Young explodes off the screen with sexually charged naivete, tempered by her heart-breaking vulnerability. Her relationship with Neill is beautifully represented, a vignette of an extended family grasping to find happiness under the storm clouds of their past. A critically wounded bird, shot by Henry, bookends the film, leaving open the question of whether old wounds can ever truly heal. There are cases to be made for both at the conclusion of the film. In the end, even if the melodrama felt somewhat contrived at times, the human story underneath strongly resonated. Stone and company have taken a nice stab at modernizing Ibsen’s work, without losing the soul and the bittersweet ironies of life that accompany it.