Review: ‘The Daughter’ deploys top Down Under talent to dramatize a revamped take on Ibsen
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 and the presence of top Anzac talent such as Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill and Miranda Otto, this film is an effective modern reworking of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s stern 1884 drama “The Wild Duck.”
And, as written and directed by debuting director Simon Stone, “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 heavily wooded area of New South Wales that was actually 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.
Because the individual roles are so strong, “The Daughter” has attracted actors -- not only Rush, Neill and Otto but American Paul Schneider, theater stalwart Ewen Leslie and young newcomer Odessa Young -- who are eager to grapple with the involving situations Ibsen came up with.
As is often the case with the dramatist, whose plays include “A Doll’s House,” “Hedda Gabler” and “Ghosts,” “The Daughter’s” scenario involves secrets and lies and introduces damaged people trying to cope with the inexorable forces of a pitiless fate.
More than that, “The Daughter” takes on questions of the necessity of truth in individual lives. Is it cruel or necessary to let people live lies, is truth something to be feared or embraced, does a truth need to be told just because it’s true?
Somber though these ideas are, “The Daughter” opens on a scene of happiness. Wealthy plutocrat Henry (Rush) is marrying a considerably younger woman named Anna (Anna Torv) who has worked as his housekeeper, and Henry’s son Christian (Schneider) is coming home from America for the ceremony.
Though he tries to seem happy, Christian has acquired an edge to his temperament as well as an international accent. 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 (Leslie). Happily married to Charlotte (Otto) and devoted to his smart and inquisitive teenage daughter Hedvig (Young), Oliver also lives with his kind-hearted father, Walter (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 about the past 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.
That difference in focus takes a bit off the impact of Ibsen’s original conception, as does the inevitable schematic nature of plotting that has a touch of “Masterpiece Theatre” about it.
But effectively counteracting all that is the combined acting skill on view as well as the care with which everything has been put together. What’s surprising about “The Daughter” is not so much its story but how we never want to turn away.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles
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