Deeply involving and emotionally searing, “The Daughter” reps a confident and profoundly moving bigscreen debut for established theater director Simon Stone. Those familiar with Henrik Ibsen’s play, which Stone freely adapted for the Sydney stage in 2011, will find its themes of the haunted past detonating in the present and the gulfs in class and gender fully intact. Yet Stone’s radical retooling of the story details, characters and setting has yielded something urgent and new, and the low-key, naturalistic approach to his direction of a fine cast — a rare tonal quality in contempo Australian drama — should ensure busy international fest play and the rapt attention of distribs seeking quality fare.
In an unnamed, present-day logging town that has seen better times, Henry Neilson (Geoffrey Rush), a well-to-do mill owner who’s aloof to the point of arrogance, announces to his employees that the economy has forced him to close. Among their number is long-time laborer Oliver Finch (Ewen Leslie), a gregarious and devoted type who assures his schoolteacher wife, Charlotte (Miranda Otto), and teenage daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young), that everything will be OK. Oliver’s absent-minded father, Walter (Sam Neill), who used to be partners with Henry and served jail time for an unspecified fiduciary breach, is unconcerned.
Meanwhile, in preparation for his marriage to much younger former housekeeper Anna (Anna Torv), Henry has summoned his estranged son, Christian (Paul Schneider), from America to serve as his best man. Currently on the wagon and separated from his wife, Christian regards his father with a smoldering resentment that gradually comes into focus as he reconnects with childhood chum Oliver and, in the process, learns that Charlotte used to be in his father’s household employ (Christian’s mother committed suicide around this time). The inevitable revelation of a long-suppressed family secret, and Christian’s fundamentally profound misunderstanding of it, lead to a cataclysmic shift in family dynamics, tempered by a faint ray of hope.
Stone has said that when he sat down to write the screenplay he had neither Ibsen’s text nor his own theatrical adaption on his desk or in his mind. What he clearly did retain, however, is both his innate understanding of the playwright’s original aims and a keen sense of small-town class tensions. But, in an obvious nod to the melodramatic trappings Stone resolutely avoids, Walter wearily advises his son, “Everyone’s got a story like this, Oliver, it’s as old as the hills.”
An actor himself (“Jindabyne,” “Balibo”), Stone has drawn extraordinary work from his cast across the board. With special nods to the work of Leslie and Schneider, it is Young’s sexually precocious yet fundamentally well-raised Hedvig (the only character name retained from Ibsen), with her lightly dyed purple hair, open smile and love of a duck crippled by a blast from Henry’s shotgun, who leaves the greatest impression. That this is a feature-film debut suggests new offers are now being entertained.
Technically, the film is at once traditional and subversive, with Andrew Commis’ lush widescreen photography massaged by an audacious and successful editing strategy that finds Stone and cutter Veronika Jenet subtly time-shifting visuals and dialogue within the same scene and using brief absences of sound to speak louder than words and actions.