THE DAUGHTER: When Truths Hurt Worse Than Lies
The Daughter is a film about a family in Australia who suddenly uncover a buried secret; it is an effectively wrought, tension-filled drama.
In 1884, Henrik Ibsen released his play The Wild Duck, and releasing this month is Simon Stone’s contemporary Australian adaptation, The Daughter. Stone doesn’t change much, choosing to stay close to the source material.
Set in modern day, The Daughter tells the story of Christian Nielsen (Paul Schneider), who goes back home to Australia from America for the wedding of his father, Henry (Geoffrey Rush). When Christian realises his new stepmother is one of Henry’s housekeepers, this blows open a closet full of skeletons in the Nielsen family tree.
Secrets & Lies
One of the significant changes in character from Ibsen’s play is that of Christian, originally named Gregers. Here, the character has his own relationship issues, aside from the tense one he has with his father and all their emotional baggage. Moreover, Christian is a struggling alcoholic. Mixed with secrets, this is a character trait which threatens the fragility of all the hidden truths in the film.
Christian comes back to Australia, where his childhood friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie) is married to Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and they have a daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young). The secrets come out when, during an offhand remark, Christian discovers Charlotte was a housekeeper for his father; nine months later came Hedvig. From there, the secrets turn into dangerous lies.
The Daughter concerns itself heavily with the theme of truth. But whereas we often see the truth as a positive, or a way of attaining a figurative sense of freedom, Christian proves that the truth can be a destructive force. It is not always happy. When lies are a sort of protective shield, the truth becomes an atomic bomb, leaving nothing in its wake but horror.
In the Wake of Truth
Christian unleashes the destruction of truth upon Henry, Charlotte, Oliver, and more specifically Hedvig, after his own personal issues take hold and his alcoholism forces out the secrets. Stone makes an excellent change from Ibsen in regards to the revelation scene. With Henry’s wedding in full swing, Oliver charges at him and lashes out in a brief moment of violence, punctuating the devastation of the truth.
Despite Oliver being deeply wounded emotionally by the truth, the one who bears the burden most is young Hedvig. Stone frames Hedvig as an even more vulnerable character than the girl of Ibsen’s play; she is a teenager growing up in a small town, a young woman figuring out her sexuality and falling in love. The secrets surrounding her life are far removed from her existence. Henry, Charlotte, and Oliver all take personal stake in the truth of her conception, while she’s left at the mercy of their lies.
Christian tells Charlotte at one point: “You do not need to be scared of the truth.” He doesn’t have the foresight of knowing what his revelation will bring out in those involved. During the finale of the film, Hedvig makes a decision which will irrevocably change the lives of those around her, as well as her own. If Christian knew this, he would’ve realised that truth, at that point of their lives, was the scariest thing of all.
As the film finishes, Stone chooses not to necessarily change Ibsen’s ending, but rather he leaves us in a state of ambiguity. This is mainly due to the fact that Hedvig suffered because of the hidden secrets of the adults in her life; Charlotte let her daughter believe Oliver was her father all those years, and when he found out he pushed Hedvig away to assuage his own wounded pride. Stone does not, one way or another, give us an answer in the last moments. He chooses to leave us in a tortured state of not knowing, just as Charlotte and Oliver are left.
There is one shining point of light concerning the fate of Hedvig. At the start of the film, her grandfather Walter (Sam Neill) finds a wounded duck and brings it home, where he and his granddaughter nurse it back to health. The literal wild duck represents Hedvig’s own journey. First, the duck was shot by Henry; symbolic of his fathering Hedvig, as well as in a way wounding her by choosing to let his affair with her mother go unknown. Later on, Walter remarks how well the duck is doing and that soon it will be able to take flight once more, which parallels the idea of Hedvig as a young woman, gaining her wings, learning to fly on her own.
However, the duck’s fate is never revealed. Stone never shows us the duck going back into the wild, recuperating from its wound. Likewise, he opts not to reveal what happens to Hedvig. The final shot hovers over her face, her eyes closed, future unsure. But, like the spirit Walter sees in the duck, the audience is left to hope for the best, and to imagine Hedvig going on into adulthood by passing the rough terrain of her teen years and taking flight.
While the end of The Daughter closes on a note of ambiguity, there’s also a moment of perfect irony. When Hedvig’s situation is left uncertain and precarious, Charlotte and Oliver come back together. Stone explores the idea of lies and truth, as well as focusing heavily on truth as a destructive power when lies have grown too big. Yet in the last scene as Charlotte and Oliver embrace, holding out hope for their daughter, the film also reaffirms that truth, through it all, can still be constructive.
Stone’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen doesn’t stray too far from the original play’s intent. The underlying themes of secrets and truth are all still intact. In a way they’re more potent than the original, because Stone writes with succinct intentions, allowing the mood and tone more time to grow without relying totally on exposition. The Daughter is a hauntingly beautiful portrait of two families torn apart by the secrets which connect them. The performances of Paul Schneider and Odessa Young will draw you inside the labyrinth of this story and their characters, as the cinematography and score keep you wrapped up in a dreamy space of their lives.
Was Christian right in revealing the volatile secrets of others? Or does our knowledge of what happens to Hedvig and the rest of her family prevent us from siding with him in the end?
The Daughter opened in NYC on January 27th, and opens in LA on February 3rd. Find international release dates here.
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