Simon Stone’s controversial and illustrious theatrical career has often held an almost cinematic sense of flair. He frequently employs rapid scene changes, on stage montages or overlaid dialogues that can give the illusion that he is editing a moment right before our eyes. With the full cinematic toolbox at his disposal it would be easy to think that Stone would actually falter without limitations, his deft sense of spatial, temporal and emotional manipulation would just become par of the course on celluloid. But his debut film The Daughter is a revelation, an incredibly powerful and shattering personal tale that possesses a sense of cinematic flair rarely seen in Australian cinema.
Based off of Simon Stone’s 2011 The Wild Duck, which is itself based off of Henrik Ibsen’s 1884 play of the same name, The Daughter follows an intertwined family saga in the wake of the closure of the local saw mill, owned by Henry (Geoffrey Rush). It’s hard to adequately summarize the richly plotted drama but to put it simply the hope of the future lies in the intelligent and beautiful Hedvig (Odessa Young) while the past keeps slowly pulling everyone back. While most of Ibsen’s qualities have been drowned by the double adaptation process this story has been through, the Norwegian playwright’s sheer generosity perseveres. Every character plays a critical role in the narrative at large as well as in their own tenderly realized arc. This isn’t an ensemble film where each actor is given their mandatory share of screen time but a tapestry of richly drawn characters all carrying their fare share of emotional baggage.
The week that the film covers unfolds in a series of haunting memory-like impressions. Stone overlaps chunks of dialogue over gorgeous shots of the muted Southern Highlands landscape, careful never to overindulge in the scenery porn that Australian directors often fawn over. There’s a shot early on in the film where the beautiful grey landscape of the saw mill is peppered with the striking fluorescent coats of the workers and it’s here that the central aesthetic thrust of the film feels most pointed; this is an emotionally direct realistic story with an incredible sense of impressionistic flair. Stone switches between non-linear bursts of dialogue and montage only settling down into very straightforward filmmaking for the most traumatic moments of the story as if this is a week being relieved and parsed over for years afterwards by the central characters. Why this week in particular would be relived becomes sadly apparent when the film reaches its conclusion.
The heavy-hitting cast unsurprisingly push this great film into being something of a modern masterpiece in Australian cinema, but it’s not necessarily the big names that dominate the screen. While Geoffrey Rush and Miranda Otto are an asset in any ensemble cast it’s Ewen Leslie’s working class but sensitive and intelligent Oliver who gives one of the most amazingly emotive yet believable performances. He builds up Oliver subtly and slowly, letting the character unfold to us in the most banal and familiar way possible so that when his eventual traumatic breakdown occurs we break along with him. As the titular daughter Hedvig, Odessa Young carries much of the film on her back (particularly considering that her narrative is so often separate from the tangled history of the adults) and it’s hard to think of a better possible performance. It’s hard to find roles for teenage girls that aren’t defined by cliché, either succumbing to them or consciously working against them, but Stone and Young create a fully fleshed out character with Hedvig who holds her own amongst the older “wiser” characters and the prestige names behind them.
Simon Stone has split his career largely between adapting European Drama and Greek Tragedy and while The Daughter’s roots in Ibsen may place it firmly on one side the lessons Stone has taken from Aristotelean tragedy elevate his debut feature to another level. This is no ordinary week for these characters, it is one of extraordinary secrets and traumas unfolding all at once but in tragedy if the worst can happen it will happen. As these characters hurtle towards a climax that was sealed for them several years ago it feels at once painfully intimate and worthy of the epic family sagas Stone often drew inspiration from. And in this we see a long awaited synthesis of what Australian cinema frequently excels at and what it has been sorely lacking. The Daughter is the film this country has been asking for for some time and it is hugely gratifying to finally see it in its excruciatingly painful glory.
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