The Daughter

March 10, 2016
Odessa Young in 'The Daughter' (2015)
Odessa Young in 'The Daughter' (2015)

Being only an occasional theatre-goer, I’ve not been able to form an opinion on the productions of local Wunderkind, Simon Stone, who has made his reputation rewriting classic plays by figures such as Chekhov and Ibsen. The one play I did see – based very loosely on Gogol’s The Government Inspector – was a pretty shallow affair.

And so it was with some trepidation that I went to see Stone’s first feature-length film, The Daughter, based on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which he had adapted for the theatre in 2011 to great acclaim. The surprise was how well the play survived the relocation from 19th century Norway to the wilds of a 21st century logging town in Tasmania.

The basic framework of the story remains intact but the character of the wealthy merchant, Hakon, is transformed into Henry (Geoffrey Rush) the owner of the local saw-mill, which is closing down. Winding up the family business has not prevented Henry from following through with his plans of marrying his housekeeper, Anna (Anna Torv), who is much younger than him.

His son, Christian (Paul Schneiders) – Gregers in the play – has returned from the United States for the ceremony. He is in a desperate state, separated from his wife and battling with alcoholism. He blames his father for his mother’s suicide, and resents the forthcoming marriage.

Christian cheers up when he encounters his old class-mate, Oliver (Ewen Leslie), and is invited home for dinner. There he meets Oliver’s wife, Charlotte (Miranda Otto), and daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young). He also gets reacquainted with Oliver’s old dad, Walter (Sam Neill).

Hedvig – the only name left unchanged from the play – is a bright, precocious girl; the very focus of Oliver and Charlotte’s existence. But when Christian realises Charlotte used to work as housekeeper for his lecherous father, he begins to suspect that Hedvig might not be Oliver’s daughter after all. Embittered and depressed by his own broken marriage, he feels it is intolerable that anyone should live with such a lie.

Christian has the power to destroy his friend’s happiness, but he prevaricates while Charlotte grows more anxious.

Hedvig, meanwhile, is intent on losing her virginity with her boyfriend, Adam (Wilson Moore), but their fumblings are hardly more than false starts.

Within this mixture of adaptation and invention, Stone has crafted a drama that feels thoroughly Australian, notwithstanding Christian’s American accent. The tension keeps building, as Christian clings to his discovery while getting reacquainted with the bottle.

By setting the action in a forestry town in which the jobs are disappearing, Stone has created an atmosphere conducive to tragedy. One need not be familiar with Ibsen’s play to be able to predict where the story is headed. It’s the methodical unfoldling of the plot and the quality of the performances that hold one’s attention.

Schneider’s Christian is an unlikeable character, even allowing for the psychological damage he has been carrying around for most of his life. Rush’s Henry is equally unsympathetic in an aloof, self-possessed manner, although viewers might find this an improvement on the actor’s growing tendency to ham it up.

It is left to Leslie, Otto, Young and Neill to provide the wronged innocence the story requires. Stone is careful, though, to show that each of these characters is flawed or tainted in some way. Oliver has gone off the rails and been in prison; as has Walter, who once took the rap for Henry for some creative bookkeeping. Charlotte may be a doting wife and mother, but her affair with Henry has left a mark on her life that can’t be erased. Young’s Hedvig has a knowing attitude to her own sexuality that would have shocked audiences in Ibsen’s day.

The wild duck is also present, although the symbolism is a little different to the way Ibsen planned it. Like its theatrical predecessor, this duck has been shot and wounded by Henry, but is being healed by Walter as part of a menagerie of battered animals. Unlike Ibsen’s Gregers, Christian has no grand, sacrificial schemes for the poor duck. He’s weird enough as it is, without adding animal cruelty to his list of unhappy tendencies.

Gregers is a deluded idealist, but Christian’s urge to reveal the truth is a legacy of the psychoanalysis he has been undergoing in America. His idea of catharsis is like a bonfire that will consume everyone in the vicinity. He resembles one of those serial killers who want to take out a crowd of people before they turn the gun on themselves.

Stone’s version of Ibsen’s tale may differ on many points, but the basic message remains the same: it is better to live with a lie than to seek the truth at all costs. It may even be that such lies provide the necessary foundations of human happiness. Whether it be old Scandinavia or a small community in Tasmania, there’s only so much truth we can stand.

The Daughter
Directed by Simon Stone
Written by Simon Stone, after The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen
Starring Paul Schneider, Geoffrey Rush, Odessa Young, Ewen Leslie, Miranda Otto, Sam Neill, Anna Torv, Wilson Moore
Australia, rated M, 96 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12th March, 2016.