Made with taste, skill and discretion, “The Daughter” demonstrates both the staying power of classic material and the risks inherent in bringing it up to date.
Despite its Australian setting, this film is an effective modern reworking of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1884 drama “The Wild Duck.”
As written and directed by debuting director Simon Stone, “The Daughter” is actually twice removed from Ibsen’s play. Though key characters and situations remain, it’s a reimagining for film of what Stone calls “a reinvention of the story for the modern world” that the director mounted on stage in Australia.
Set in a wooded area of New South Wales that was settled by Scandinavians, “The Daughter” underlines the staying power of Ibsen, a dramatist who, much like Shakespeare, had insights into character and human dynamics that involve us to this day.
As is often the case with Ibsen, the scenario in the “The Daughter” involves secrets and lies and introduces damaged people trying to cope with the inexorable forces of a pitiless fate.
Somber though these ideas are, “The Daughter” opens on a scene of happiness. Wealthy plutocrat Henry (Geoffrey Rush) is marrying a considerably younger woman named Anna (Anna Torv) who has worked as his housekeeper, and Henry’s son Christian (Paul Schneider) is coming home from America for the ceremony.
Though he tries to seem happy, Christian has acquired an edge to his temperament. With troubles in his own marriage, he wears residual resentment like a second skin.
The only thing that makes Christian light up is a reunion with his oldest friend, Oliver (Ewen Leslie). Happily married to Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and devoted to his smart and inquisitive teenage daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young), Oliver also lives with his kindhearted father, Walter (Sam Neill), who has established a kind of woodland sanctuary for wounded animals, like a wild duck Henry has wounded but not killed.
The wedding is taking place at a grim moment in this logging town’s history. Henry is closing the town’s timber mill, the mainstay of the community for more than 100 years, and though he says he is sorry about that, Henry comes off as too much a law unto himself to be truly affected.
All these factors create a sense of impending doom, of tensions simmering under the surface, as writer-director Stone, his hand guided by Ibsen, moves his characters back and forth like a chess grandmaster.
The wild card in everything that goes on is Christian, who is angry, bitter and filled with enough discontent to make him an especially dangerous individual to uncover disconcerting information that has lain undisturbed in his absence.
While Ibsen’s play dealt with the dangers inherent in an idealism about truth that doesn’t take reality into account, “The Daughter,” as its title indicates, is more concerned with the nature of family, and the effects of that change are open to debate.
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Miranda Otto, Paul Schneider, Ewen Leslie, Odessa Young.
Writer-director: Simon Stone.
A Kino Lorber release. Running time: 96 minutes. In Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema.