The Daughter opens up, and misjudges, an Ibsen play

The Daughter

Like a book report that opens with a dictionary definition of “fore·sha·dow·ing,” The Daughter, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck by Australian theatre director Simon Stone, is simplistic to a fault. Everything is solemn (everyone is happy to see each other early on, yet a sub-Eno score drones over reunions and afterschool hangouts, adding a choral aria over slow-motion water-tubing shots and teen makeout sessions alike), and all the cinematography is serious: the festival checklist of behind-the-head following shots, shallow-focus close-ups, and swooping steadicam to follow characters trudging through an indifferent landscape is full by the fifth minute. Yet Stone seems to have failed to take Ibsen’s dramatic construction all that seriously.

Ibsen, responding to interpretations of his work, wasn’t thrilled by those who focused on heavy, over-determined meaning at the expense of taking in the characters, their relation, the setting they find themselves living in, the way their personalities and philosophies clash and cause the drama that, depending on the critic, could be called middle-class realism or a lyric poet dramatist. “Yes, to be sure, the explainers,” he wrote. “They don’t always do their job well. They like symbolizing, because they have no respect for reality.”

Stone has re-written the play to fit contemporary speech (there are a lot of bad dad jokes, and when characters break down and cry, they say, “Jesus Christ!” a lot), which is a decision that can have merit —breaking down a classic work can bring it into the present, where the characters, depending on the reading, are supposed to live. But the character of the re-written title, played by Odessa Young, who finds the subtlety of uneasy reflection and grand scale of reckless yearning that eludes most of the rest of the cast, isn’t allowed to be much of a character. She’s a symbol, capital-I innocence, with no interior life, just a plot thread intended to lead to a cop-out ambiguous ending.

To be fair, Ibsen constructed plot mechanism traps too. As E.M. Forster wrote, “For all his sincerity there is something automatic about it, he reminds us too often of father at the breakfast table after a bad night, sensitive to the defects of society as revealed by a chance glance at the newspaper, and apt to blame all parties for them indiscriminately. Now it is the position of women that upsets father, now the lies people tell, now their inability to lie, now the drains, now the newspaper itself, which he crumples up.” But in what Stone brings to this (an alcoholism sub-plot; the staging of a wedding only alluded to in the play, which suggests that, just as Jonathan Demme had maybe been watching too much Lars von Trier before he made Rachel Getting Married, so has Stone taken too many cues from Rachel Getting Married), there is no real outrage or sympathy or satire. Instead, a wrung-out audience, a well-earned tax credit for shooting in the forests of New South Wales, an uninvolved work of commissioned, classic misery.