In a scene near the opening of Simon Stone’s The Daughter, a wild duck with a gunshot wound to its wing stares straight out, motionless, from inside a cage, as if disappointed in the world, on a vehicle that bears it away. “Put it out of its misery,” a voice says. Then new rounds are loaded into a gun.
We do not know whether the coup de grace is carried through, until the duck appears a third of the way into the film in the animals’ home of Walter (Sam Neill), a local resident. “It is like an artificial RSPCA,” says his grand-daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young), about the makeshift sanctuary in the rural town.
The debut feature by Stone, an Australian theatre director, in his adaptation of Hendrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, weaves through the tale its analogy, resonant though it is, like luminous cotton. However, what it lacks in subtlety, this gorgeously-shot movie — of pale palettes, as though the entire drama takes place behind the grey mist of the NSW countryside — more than makes up for in its soundtrack and first-rate acting. Besides the title character that is powerfully embodied by Young, the rest of the formidable cast plays their roles with convincing flawlessness.
When we meet him, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), the owner of a timber mill that has kept the whole community employed for more than a generation, is announcing its closure. There are a few jeers, some quiet swears, amid feelings of resignation. But while people are forced to relocate to seek employment elsewhere, the mogul is planning a lavish wedding to his housekeeper, a much younger woman. And his son, Christian (Paul Schneider), has also just returned for the ceremony from America.
Estranged from his father, Christian chooses to spend time with his childhood mate, Oliver (Ewen Leslie), and gets to know his daughter, Hedvig, his wife, Charlotte (Miranda Otto), and becomes reacquainted with Walter, in whose safe-house he sees the recovering duck and learns about Henry’s involvement in its plight.
Only, he goes on to learn more.
In the years he has been away since his mother’s suicide, Christian has battled alcoholism. And now as he witnesses Henry’s apparent self-centred indifference, moving on with a new relationship, his own marriage in tatters, the embittered man resumes drinking with abandon.
Deftly swelling an imperceptible sense of latent violence, Stone makes us hold our breath in anticipation of what damage on Oliver’s family bliss instability could inflict with long-hidden truths.
It is not hard to infer where Stone has elected to place his emphasis, nevertheless. Following Hedvig in her navigation through endless changes, the account is ultimately an end-of-innocence story in which the 16-year-old finds her fate pre-ordained from birth. Although proving resilient, after being disillusioned by her first sexual encounter, she grapples with friends leaving the neighbourhood, and struggles to understand impunity for the rich and powerful, before watching her family unravel in a whirlwind of scandals and secrets.
Toward the end of the film, there is one frame, quick and (incongruently) nuanced, flashing past like fleeting consciousness, that I found particularly indelible: as the father-daughter relationship between Hedvig and Oliver collapses in a bleak carpark, the camera pans to an upstairs window of a nearby apartment block, and the child’s face — looking down upon them — in it.
The Daughter, that connects two families across three generations, impresses with the way it captures deep-seated human emotions. And despite its trite metaphor of a broken bird flying again, and its less-than-credible denouement, it is something worth watching still.