An Aussie drama spins its soap-opera plot into gold

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Daughter
RPL Film Theatre
Aug. 25-28
4 out of 5

Australia is a reliable source of quality cinema, and not just the apocalyptic variety. The country gives Hollywood lots of skilled actors and directors to waste, but fortunately the homegrown talent is willing to come home for a smaller but weightier projects.

That’s what happened with The Daughter, a heavy drama headlined by two patriarchs of Australian cinema, Geoffrey Rush and Sam Neill (who is having a banner year with another award-worthy performance following his turn in The Hunt for the Wilderpeople).

Rush is Henry Nielsen, the owner of a mill that’s the livelihood of a small town. Due to unfavorable economic circumstances, Henry is forced to close the business — a devastating blow to the entire community. While not entirely insensitive to his workers’ plight, the industrialist is heading to a rosy retirement. He is about to marry a woman half his age (Anna Torv, Fringe), who genuinely cares for him.

The Finch family is hit especially hard by the closure. Unlike the Nielsens, the Finches have struggled financially for decades. Yet their lives are inextricably linked: Patriarch Walter (Neill) used to be Henry’s business partner, and he took the fall for a scheme gone wrong. Their sons, Oliver and Christian, were best friends, and Oliver’s wife, Charlotte, worked as Henry’s housekeeper (still with me?).

The Finch clan’s pride and joy is Hedvig, a bright and sensitive teenager who might just break the circle of poverty her family has endured for generations.

The arrival of Christian Nielsen (Paul Schneider, Café Society) to his dad’s nuptials forecasts doom for both families. Estranged from his father after his mom’s suicide, Christian is also dealing with demons of his own — alcoholism and his separation from his wife. While well-intentioned, bitterness is eating him alive.

Based on Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, The Daughter is a slow-burn tragedy that lands plenty of punches in the last third, even though heartbreak seems unescapable from early on. While the setup is faithful to the play, the film ditches the most grating elements (blindness, social experimentation). The decisions are almost all spot-on, but a (true to the original) subplot about an ailing duck feels superfluous.

Although the theoretical villain of the piece is egotistical, conceited Henry, his son Christian is more damaging. His self-righteousness causes every catastrophe in the film. He’s a match on dry grass. Despite their antagonistic relationship, father and son share a common trait, the entitlement that comes from money. This social element transforms the movie from effective tearjerker into something richer and more maddening. Male pride also gets depicted as a destructive force, and the women in the film have a hard time overcoming it.

The one actor that gets the short shift among strong turns by veterans and newcomers (Odessa Young as Hedvig is mesmerizing) is Anna Torv. Her role is reduced to a couple of scenes trying to get through to the aloof Henry, even though she holds her own against a subdued Rush.

The Daughter may not be anybody’s idea of a good time but it’s hard to shake off. Sometimes that’s what you want from a movie.