In his atmospheric debut film, Australian theater director Simon Stone whittles down The Wild Duck into a cautionary tale about welcoming home an emotional exile. While stage adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s tragicomedy often emphasize its farcical elements, Stone sticks to tragedy in his naturalistic version, set in densely planted logging forests and a rural community of abandoned factories and few opportunities. This loose modern adaptation presents long-buried secrets as landmines on the road to happiness and strips away the play’s philosophical clash between idealism and illusion, Ibsen’s rationale for an alienated scion of the ruling class wielding truth like a weapon — and destroying his best friend’s fragile family structure by revealing the lie it was built upon.
When Christian Nielsen (Paul Schneider) reunites with Oliver Finch (Ewen Leslie) after nearly 20 years, they leap back to being teenagers, overlooking the time apart and events that made their paths diverge. Christian has reluctantly returned to attend the wedding of his father Henry (Geoffrey Rush), who’s just announced that the Nielsen family business, a sawmill that employs most of the town, will be shutting down. This barely registers for Christian, who's surrounded by memories of his mother’s suicide and trying to prevent the collapse of his own marriage. He’s easily pulled into his old friend's warm embrace, and spends more time at the comfortably ramshackle Finch household than he does in his father’s imposing mansion.
Stone and Leslie make Oliver an enviable figure (instead of Ibsen’s pitiable photographer), grateful for the happiness he found after experiencing his own crisis. He’d planned on law school, not driving a forklift at the sawmill, but still feels passion for his supportive wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), treasures bantering with whip-smart teenage daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young), and provides a stable environment for his father Walter (Sam Neill), who’d been in prison for financial fraud. Oliver sees a contented life instead of a compromised one, and thinks little about the Finch family’s ties to Henry. Christian’s revelation makes him reconsider everything.
These faint echoes of Ibsen don’t lift The Daughter above the average family drama about exposing secrets and lies, but Stone's addition — the sense that accumulated disappointment triggers tragedy — is poignant. While Christian and Oliver discuss how their solid foundations collapsed, Hedvig is experiencing it. After every setback, she slowly rights herself, only to confront another piece of astounding information. The adults around Hedvig handle her anguish with a laid-back urgency: They want to protect and comfort her, but their roiling emotions push her immediate needs aside.
Hedvig’s fate is still tied to that of a wild duck shot down by the squire and cared for by her disgraced grandfather. This resilient creature resides in Walter’s forest within a forest, an enclosed wildlife refuge that Hedvig helps tend. Stone views Hedvig and the wild duck as victims of careless wealthy men, each deserving of a second chance. It’s his biggest divergence from Ibsen’s 1884 play, in which both are offered up for sacrifice. Hedvig’s life, her intelligence and potential, are central to The Daughter, and despite the trauma she faces, Stone would rather see her fly than drown.