Based on Henrik Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck, The Daughter (directed by Simon Stone) is a brooding and gothic vision of life in rural Australia. Secrecy begets contamination; this is a lesson learned in many a small town narrative. The Daughter is an examination of the dangerous nature of secrets and lies.
The Daughter shares a mood and tone with Ray Lawrence’s Lantana, however it is perhaps better paired with Jane Campion’s recent television series Top of the Lake, or even the aptly named British film Secrets and Lies by Mike Leigh. Like The Daughter, Top of the Lake sees its lead protagonist return to their hometown to reconnect with the secrets and mysteries of their past.
From the opening sequence there is a clear sense of confliction within The Daughter. Henry (Geoffrey Rush) shoots a duck, wounding but not killing it. Standing in the mist, he watches the bird as it rests dying at his feet but can’t bring himself to finish what he started. Instead, he hands the responsibility to someone else. The duck is soon placed in the care of Walter (Sam Neill), and there is a small indication of a consistent theme. The cinematography of these early scenes ranges from jerky and frantic to strangely still, contributing further to the eeriness of these early moments.
As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that there are many instances of Henry passing responsibility on to others, and many secrets to be uncovered. When Christian (Paul Schneider) returns for Henry’s wedding, it seems that the son and father have allowed many secrets to go unchecked. Christian reconnects with his old friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie), and after fifteen years apart there are mysteries surrounding Christian’s long absence.
Oliver introduces Christian to his wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and his daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young). As the apparent daughter of the film’s title, Hedvig appears to be slightly enigmatic. While she is close with her family, doing well at school, and has a decent boyfriend, certainly there is something amiss in her young life. She and her grandfather Walter are very close, caring for wounded animals. But as Walter appears slightly demented, there are further concerns surrounding Hedvig.
When secrets are left unchecked, they mutate into a curse. Likewise when the past is left unresolved, it will fester and come back to haunt. The ‘return of the past’ is a feature of Australian gothic, and the haunting past is certainly an issue for The Daughter. As Angus Tonkin aptly points out in his review, some truths are better left unmentioned. Christian’s need for the truth releases a series of secrets that contaminate the lives of his family and friends.
As the secrets are revealed, a gothic contamination spreads. Just as Henry could not kill the duck at the opening of the film, shirking the responsibility to others, he has passed the onus of his transgression before. Not merely allowing Walter to go to prison for their shared crimes, or denying Christian the truth about his mother’s death. As these truths and others are revealed, everyone must face the return of the past in a new and mutated form. Where they have kept the secrets quashed before, whether with drink or lies or running away, they must face the damage now.
More than just a story about secrets, The Daughter is also about life in an Australian rural community. When the workers are laid off from the mill their exodus suggests the town is losing life, not merely a loss of jobs and industry. There is a commentary about how lives diverge – some move away, some stay. For some, to get away is an escape, for others to stay is a sentence. Isolated from city and suburban life, the small town setting appears especially remote. When Christian returns to his childhood home from New York, it seems he has travelled from an entirely different land. His tailored jackets are markedly different to Oliver’s scruffy shirts and work gear. They are both changed irrevocably from their boyhood, yet still defined in part by the locale of that period of their lives.
There is a lack of resolution to The Daughter, however this too is in keeping with the Australian gothic film style. We are left in the dark as to the outcome, yet this is not surprising. The gothic is more about shedding light on secrets and lies, releasing the contamination, and not about how to clean up after the fall out.
The Daughter is in cinemas from 17th March through Roadshow Films. Read our review here.