An adaptation of The Wild Duck set in contemporary Australia, Simon Stone’s The Daughter foregoes the symbolic nuances of Henrik Ibsen’s play in favor of brute histrionics and emotional fireworks. The decision to eliminate all ambiguity from the narrative is apparent in the film’s title. Whereas the play’s eponymous duck is a polyvalent symbol that points to the frailty at the heart of all social relations and personal ambitions, the film makes the animal solely representative of Hedvig (Odessa Young), the titular daughter.
The story follows prodigal son Christian (Paul Schneider) as he returns home to New South Wales from America for his father Henry’s (Geoffrey Rush) wedding to his young maid, Anna (Anna Torv). The reasons for why Henry is a benefactor to the family of Christian’s childhood friend, Oliver (Ewen Leslie), hangs over the film, but as the secrets are revealed and lives are destroyed in the process, the film never quite reaches the tragic heights of the play. Bogged down by clumsy plotting, uneven performances, and a dour tone that creates an oppressively monotonous mood, The Daughter grows wearisome long before the conclusion’s long-awaited gunshot finally arrives.
The film attempts to tap into the zeitgeist by setting this family drama against a background of economic malaise. Henry owns the factory in the company town where the story takes place, and when an economic downturn forces him to shut down the factory, causing the community to disintegrate after its inhabitants lose their means of livelihood, The Daughter equates the social traumas of Henry’s victims with their economic fates. Like the capitalist villains of so many German Expressionist and early Soviet films, Henry is portrayed as the cause of everyone’s suffering. And while it’s Christian’s big mouth that sets off the film’s catastrophic sequence of events, he’s ultimately too pathetic of a figure to deflect the general indignation away from Henry, a kind of primal father to whom all are beholden for both their joy and misery.
Playing opposing yet complementary father figures, Rush and Sam Neill (as Oliver’s father) give measured performances that match the gravitas of the source material, revealing their characters’ various depths of feeling bubbling just beneath their weathered exteriors. Unfortunately, their quiet dignity and restrained emotions clash awkwardly with some of the other actors’ wild and unrestrained theatrics, especially those of Schneider and Young.
Schneider’s character swings haphazardly between two extremes. First he’s a psychological cipher whose ignorance of preceding events is used as a clumsy plot device to allow other characters to reveal their backstory. Then, halfway through the film, a heretofore unmentioned drinking problem is conveniently revealed to justify his suddenly unhinged behavior. In the end, this abrupt shift from shy newcomer to emboldened moral prophet seems to stem more from the necessities of the plot than his character’s organic development.
Dealing with some poorly written scenes, like a preposterously scripted shouting match between Hedvig and her mother, Charlotte (Miranda Otto), in the middle of one of the former’s high school classes, Young is also by and large outmatched by her co-stars. Meant to be The Daughter’s most empathetic character, Young’s Hedvig comes off as merely emo. Throw in an unremittingly melancholy soundtrack that doubles down on the film’s relentlessly bleak tone and you have a work too often straining for a tragic gravity that its ultimately melodramatic characters never earn.