The Daughter full movie review - optimistic update of Ibsen's The Wild Duck
Simon Stone's The Daughter is "inspired" by Ibsen's The Wild Duck but it's radically different. Stone gives the Danish Nietzschean tragedy a contemporary Australian setting with an upbeat spiritual ending.
The basic plot holds. A wealthy industrialist's son Christian returns from self-exile for his father Henry's marriage to his much younger housekeeper. Christian's mother killed herself over Henry's affair with an earlier Housekeeper, Charlotte. Now Christian learns that Charlotte married his best friend Oliver who thinks the daughter Hedvig she had by Henry is his. Whether out of bitter despair over his own romantic loss or out of wrong-headed idealism, Christian reveals the long buried secret. His friend is revulsed by the wife and daughter he has so profoundly loved and rejects them. Hedvig shoots herself.
Stone makes significant changes. His Hedvig frees the duck that Henry had shot down and Hedvig and her grandfather Walter nurtured. Ibsen's Hedvig agrees to her father's demand she put the duck out of its misery, then shoots herself instead. Stone's Hedvig is herself a creature of nature. Her science fair project is a study of amino acids, in and beyond the human body. Her eagerness for sex confirms her natural appetite, as she invites both her young boyfriend and Christian.
Her sexual initiation in the forest is enigmatic. The boy had earlier postponed this First Time until her birthday. In the event, he -- as university registrars put it -- withdraws in good standing and runs off. Perhaps he felt guilty about not having told her his family was moving away. Perhaps her virginity -- she hurts, despite her claim to experience -- and the unaccustomed condom embarrassed him with a premature ejaculation. In any case, the scene presents him as a modern, sensitive young man, The New Man, in contrast to the bullish self indulgence of Henry and his generation.
By renaming Ibsen's Gregers Christian, Stone implies another contrast, between Henry's pagan self indulgence and the new man of conscience. Christian urges Charlotte to reveal her secret to her husband: "The truth can't hurt you." But this son can't escape his father's hold, as his retreat to drink and drug reveals. Embittered that his woman has dumped him, Christian may not be as noble as he thinks when he shatters his old friend Oliver's happy family. The destructive power of the father is visited upon the son, for all his moral pretensions.
Henry has ruined the family. He let his friend and partner Walter go to jail for their joint scheme. Giving him a pension and helping Oliver buy his modest house is scant compensation. But his destruction of the family is incomplete until his possibly well- meaning son shares his destructive truth. For that even Henry's promise of a trust fund for Hedvig cannot compensate.
The film's last shot poses an ambiguity beyond the play's solid suggestion that Hedvig killed herself. The medic has said she has a chance. The last shot shows her in radiant close-up, eyes closed. Does she recover? Does she die? We're left to our own conclusion. Modern audiences will leap to the hope of a conventional happy ending.
But Stone directs us to a more complex conclusion. The radiance makes her appear angelic, confirmed by the religious chorale. The implication is that she dies but in a transcendent way. She returns to her quintessential unity with wild ducks, animal appetites and amino acids. Her wounding has shaken her effective father out of his mad self denial, so he resumes his love for her and his wife. And she is finally freed from her brute father Henry's clutch. In this delicate balance Stone respects Ibsen's tragic vision but allows for the alternative encouragement, the view that we don't live in an uncaring brutal universe but in a world of material and spiritual interconnection.