Given its title, there is no doubting who the key figure is in this delicately unsettling Australian drama set in a small Australian town that, for years, has relied on the local timber mill for its economic survival. Adapted from Henrik Isben’s play The Wild Duck by Simon Stone and featuring a slew of terrific performances, The Daughter is a film that looks stunning and packs an emotional punch in its unravelling of long suppressed family secrets. More than just a family drama, The Daughter delivers an exploration of social class and the fragility of those small communities dependant on one industry for their continued survival. Whilst Stone’s only previous film credit is a segment in the Tim Winton portmanteau piece The Turning, he has previously helmed Ibsen’s work both in Australia with the Belvoir Street Theatre and on international stages. As such, his familiarity with this work has produced an assured feature film debut; a disciplined drama in the same vein as the very fine works of Ray Lawrence (Lantana, Jindabyne). As such, this may well prove to be the best Australian film released this year.
Geoffrey Rush is Henry, the wealthy owner of the local timber mill who, having informed his workers of the impending closure of the business, sets about preparing for his upcoming wedding to his former housekeeper Anna (Anna Torv). The wedding has lured Henry’s son Christian (Paul Schneider) back from America to serve as best man, despite the fact that the pair can’t stand to be in each other’s company. When Christian reconnects with childhood friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie), one of those to have lost their job as a result of the mill closure, their reminiscences soon make way for the unleashing of a series of secrets and lies that ultimately threaten to irrevocably change the lives of those involved. Oliver is an affable everyman who is hitched to Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a teacher at the local school attended by their 15-year-old daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young). Throw in Sam Neill as Walter, Oliver’s forgetful father with a penchant for wildlife rehabilitation, and you have the core players in this understated yet unnerving tale of deception.
Whilst the core revelation around which the narrative revolves doesn’t come as a great surprise, there are still plenty of other questions left unanswered to sustain viewer interest through to the end, such as the circumstances surrounding the death of Christian’s mother years earlier. A genial husband and father who, despite having squandered the opportunities of his youth, has etched a happy life for himself and his family, Oliver’s transformation into an emotionally bereft shell of a man by movie’s end is a great credit to Leslie’s performance. However, in a movie titled The Daughter, it is the titular character that is so pivotal in making the film work and Young is remarkable as the precocious, complex Hedvig, a luminous presence whenever she is on screen. Although a typical teenager in many ways (sneaking off into the bush to have sex with her boyfriend), Hedvig seems destined for something far beyond the confines of this small town in decline. Young articulates the contradictions of Hedvig’s persona – wise beyond her years one minute, wide-eyed innocence the next – with an effortlessness that belies her lack of experience.
Filmed on location near the Snowy Mountain towns of Tumut and Batlow, cinematographer Andrew Commis, editor Veronika Janet and composer Mark Bradshaw have been very successful in conveying intimacy and conjuring tension; the forest setting is menacing, mysterious and meditative. With The Daughter, Stone has crafted a fine, emotionally powerful piece of cinema that has unearthed yet another Aussie upstart seemingly destined for big things. For Young though, the challenge will be to maintain the momentum generated from a performance that might just be the best from a young Aussie actress since Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s equally stunning turn in 2013’s 52 Tuesdays.