Take the drama from all twenty-nine seasons of Home and Away, condense it into a single movie, then actually make it watchable, and you might have something resembling Simon Stone’s breakout hit The Daughter.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Middle-aged Christian (Paul Schneider) returns from America to his remote, rural Australian hometown to celebrate his father Henry (Geoffrey Rush) remarrying to a younger woman. He reconnects with his high school buddy Oliver (Ewen Leslie) and his dad (Sam Neill), and is introduced to Oliver’s wife (Miranda Otto) and daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young). But things are not as wholesome at home as they appear at first; as Christian reintegrates himself he unearths deep, dark family secrets, and his attempts to set things right could tear apart the lives of the people he left behind him years ago.
Reimagined for the 21st century from the 19th century Norwegian play The Wild Duck, Simon Stone’s (director of the “Reunion” segment in The Turning) debut feature The Daughter is a rare mystery that rewards patience. Much of the film’s first half is spent simply introducing the economically decaying country town and its inhabitants, catching up with old friends and meeting new ones from Christian’s perspective, while only very gradually revealing the connections and tensions between each character.
Stone purposely keeps us in the dark for as long as he can, and it’s a highly effective method – enjoyable as it is to meet these very real-feeling people, something ominous hangs overhead. Stone’s script flows at an impressively smooth pace, creating a daunting amount of tension before the secrets spill forth and everything unravels explosively.
His rattling mood is captured to such great power thanks immensely to the striking visuals (or lack thereof) conjured up by cinematographer Andrew Commis. Every frame holds a dim, low lighting practically dipped and smudged in greys and greens; clouds blotted against the sky mirror the storm brewing within the family. And when it finally hits, it’s astonishingly dark, bubbling in an intense series of confrontations and juicy twists. Though its brain-stimulating guessing game may lead some to pick a few of its reveals early, it’s no less exhilarating when they arrive.
The ensemble cast are a hugely appealing bunch, and each handle the stressful material terrifically. Geoffrey Rush is a brooding, temperamental transgressor as Henry, equally sympathetic as he is deceitful. It’s great to see Rush, along with fellow Hollywood exports Sam Neill and Miranda Otto at the top of their game and showing admirable gusto in a local film. WA-born Ewen Leslie too proves he is capable of matching his heavyweight co-stars in emotional range , and Paul Schneider is a more than welcome American addition, delivering some of his best work to date. But it’s the fresh-faced Odessa Young who impresses most as the titular teenage daughter, graduating from a handful of small-screen roles, to this year’s Looking For Grace and a knockout performance in The Daughter that will surely have Tinsel Town calling soon.
With such a barrage of shocks and surprise developments, The Daughter does tip-toe a very fine line – ultimately a few of the many plot threads are left unresolved, and it does occasionally threaten to topple over into complete melodrama. But what could have become “Neighbours: The Movie” is saved from soap opera trappings by an intriguingly bleak and mysterious tale, an assembly of outstanding acting and some superb work from behind the camera. Stone has so remarkably created such an entertaining and thrilling first feature that he immediately cements himself as one to keep an eye on; as does Australia’s accelerating film industry and our escalating quality of releases – 2016 already looks like exciting stuff for Oz.
The Daughter is available in Australian cinemas from March 17th
Image courtesy of Roadshow Films