The Daughter begins with a duck and ends as as bomb. This adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s theater warhorse The Wild Ducks looks promising: modern Australian setting, international casting. But accepting American Paul Schneider as Sam Neill’s son is only one of the challenges that writer-director Simon Stone can’t deal with. Its running time doesn’t allow the complexities set up in the first third to simmer, and when the last third calls for tragedy to strike the result is a muddle.
Having reached the age when companionship with a little sex in it matters more than money, mill owner Henry Nielsen (Geoffrey Rush) is engaged to marry his housekeeper Anna (Anna Torv). To celebrate the occasion, he invites son Christian (Schneider), who hasn’t been home in ages. Reuniting with his former best friend Oliver Finch (Ewen Leslie, giving the film’s best performance) forces him to confront several unpleasantries: the fact that Henry has shut down the mill, driving employees like Oliver into what British Commonwealth nations maliciously call redundancy (“It’s never too late to start again!” Rush chirps at an employee meeting in the film’s first scene); Christian’s own alcoholism; and a secret concerning Oliver’s wife Charlotte (The Lord of the Rings‘ Miranda Otto).
If you’ve read the play, you know the secret. How Simon stumbles towards these revelations frustrated me, but that’s not the worst problem afflicting this adaptation: the film is edited as if in a delirium. Starting with a montage, The Daughter spends the rest of its ninety-minute running time like a montage. Simon cuts scenes before the audience can register what’s happening and, worse, before the audience understands the characters’ relations with each other. For too long I couldn’t figure who Sam Neill was supposed to be; he doesn’t seem to have met the rest of the cast. The film’s refusal to engage the political implications of its scenario strands him. After hanging around for long periods drinking beer, peeping through windows, and growling, Neill emerges to offer fatherly succor in a key third act scene, but like the unfamiliar parish priest knocking on your door on the advice of neighbors the scene has no tug. Worse still is a classroom yell fest between Hedvig and Charlotte. Playing the detached, almost moon-faced pasha, Rush can’t call upon the full resources of his crinkled, sardonic timbre. He’s evanescence itself — when at one point he gets punched I expected the hand to go through him (The Daughter also boasts one of those scores in which a single piano note, buttressed by strings, resounds into eternity; often characterized as “spare” and “haunting” it’s the equivalent of a cheat sheet.)
Let me return to the duck, though: the clearest reminder that Ibsen bobs in this stew of overcooked potatoes and raw meat, which is to say the promising material won’t go down the throat and the carbs take up the slack. There’s also a shotgun, introduced in so hamhanded a fashion that Stone forgets he isn’t adapting Anton Chekhov. Still, Hedvig’s last moment – a confrontation with Oliver – sears, quite apart from what unfolds on screen. That’s a problem: I felt for the actress, not the performance. By the time The Daughter ends Geoffrey Rush’s first spoken line still rang in my head: “Put this thing out of its misery.”