And two stars are born …
don’t usually like to make predictions of the “this film is bound to win an Oscar” variety as they have a habit of being wrong. But for once I’ll stick my neck out: Simon Stone is going to have an important career as a film director and Odessa Young will be an international star.
The Daughter is a new Australian film of great distinction: Young plays the title character in her second screen role after impressing as the runaway teenager in Looking for Grace, and Stone, who is still in his early 30s and has already carved out an international reputation as a theatre director, proves with his feature film debut that he is completely at home with cinema. Not just at home, but he’s able to expand the medium with inventiveness and considerable skill.
Stone originally adapted Henrik Ibsen’s great play The Wild Duck for the stage, keeping the themes and narrative arcs of the original while modernising and drastically adapting the material. Somewhat surprisingly, his film represents quite a radical departure from the stage, to the extent that the role played by Ewen Leslie, who was in the play and is also in the film, portrays essentially a different character.
This is not the first film made in Australia to have been inspired by Ibsen’s play. In 1983, Henri Safran directed a version of the drama for which actors Liv Ullmann and Jeremy Irons were imported to play leading roles. But Stone’s modernisation breathes new life into the drama, and an impeccable and distinguished cast further enhances the material.
The Daughter was filmed around Tumut in NSW and is set in a small town that, for years, has relied for its survival on the timber mill that is the chief employer. Its owner, the wealthy Henry Neilson (Geoffrey Rush), has just announced that the mill will be forced to close down, a decision that provokes resentment and gloom in the community. One of those directly affected is Oliver Finch (Leslie), who has worked at the mill all his life and whose father, Walter ( Sam Neill), was once Henry’s closest friend.
While this upheaval is going on, Henry — whose wife committed suicide sometime earlier — is about to marry Anna (Anna Torv), his housekeeper. The wedding brings Henry’s son Christian (Paul Schneider) back from America, where he’s lived for many years, and as a direct result of his return family secrets and revelations threaten to destroy the marriage of Oliver and his wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), and the stability of their teenage daughter Hedwig (Young).
These entwined relationships and histories are presented by Stone with dazzling economy and skill. The first few minutes of the film are filled with lucidly presented information, achieved by the division of sound from image, so that often a conversation is heard on the soundtrack while quite separate visual information is depicted on screen.
This device not only allows Stone to establish characters, relationships and a certain amount of backstory swiftly and clearly, but it also dramatically depicts the complex linkages between the characters.
Stone’s knowledge of cinema is also apparent in his use of punctuating images of the misty forests of this part of southern NSW, a device that evokes the style of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu.
The entire cast responds to the director’s subtle and intelligent vision, giving performances that resonate long after the film is over. In a perfect ensemble, it seems churlish to single out one or two actors, but Leslie’s troubled Oliver is truly memorable, as is Young’s conflicted Hedwig. This young actress, only 17 when the film was made, confirms the impression she made in the earlier Looking for Grace. As a girl experimenting with sex for the first time but still emotionally bound up in the lives of her parents Clockwise from top, Paul Schneider and Miranda Otto, Sam Neill, and Geoffrey Rush with Anna Torv in scenes from The Daughter; above, Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch and grandfather, Young is agonisingly good, and a late scene in which she confronts Oliver in an open-air carpark is utterly wrenching.
This scene is shot by cinematographer Andrew Commis with a loose handheld camera, a style that can prove jarring and vertigo-inducing if badly employed. Here, though, the visuals serve to reflect the emotions of the characters to positive effect.
I don’t know if there’ll be a better Australian film released this year, but for now all I can do is to recommend in the strongest terms this fine, powerful, emotional piece of cinema. The Witch: A New England Folktale is another first feature film by a theatre director and it’s also an intelligent and strikingly well-made cinema experience, though far less accessible than The Daughter. Writer-director Robert Eggers comes from New Hampshire and initially made his reputation as a stage designer before graduating to the director’s chair. He has chosen not to take the easy route in the production of his first film, for which he has selected a subject and style that seem remote from much of contemporary cinema. Indeed, his inspiration seems to have been Danish director Carl Dreyer’s wartime drama Day of Wrath, with which The Witch (the title appears as “The VVitch” on the credits) shares many themes.
The film, beautifully photographed by Jarin Blaschke in northern Ontario in tones of misty greys and greens, is set in about 1630 in a small community of pilgrims recently arrived in the New Land from England. The dialogue is archaic and heavily accented, resulting in oc- casional problems in comprehension, although the narrative itself is clear enough.
William (Ralph Ineson), his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children are banished from their highly religious community for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The family relocates to the edge of an isolated forest, where they establish a small farm. Not long after their arrival in this new place, their baby, Samuel, disappears while the oldest girl, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is looking after him. Was the child the victim of a wolf or of something more sinister? And is Thomasin, who is going through the early stages of puberty, a witch, as her twin siblings come to believe?
Strange things occur. The corn William has planted rots on the cob, a hen lays a bloody egg, a goat’s milk turns to blood, a hare with strange, yellow eyes is seen prowling around the property, and the family’s billy goat takes on a sinister character of its own. While all these fearful and mysterious things are happening, the family’s second child, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is lured into the forest by a mysterious woman in a red cloak.
As you will see from the above, the film has all the elements for a supernatural thriller, but Eggers plays down the thrills and horror in favour of an austere and mysterious fable, chilling in its remorseless depiction of the disintegration of a deeply religious family. The littleknown cast of British actors succeeds in convincingly portraying these threatened pilgrims who, while seeking out a new and better life, find themselves in the middle of an inexplicable nightmare.