A girl in amber

Eve Cohen

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE
 Orhan Pamuk (2008)

Once upon a time, a young peasant girl fell in love with a handsome prince . . .

She thought about him all day long and dreamed of him at night. When he rode through the village with his retinue, she felt sick with yearning. One day, she was walking by a bridge as he rode across it, his long hair flying in the wind. She saw him spit into the river as he passed by, so she ran downstream, waded into the water and caught the phlegm in her hands. She brought it to her lips. There could be no greater happiness. This was love, she thought, closing her eyes in bliss.

I was reminded of this Japanese folk story while reading The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature). Pamuk’s novel was published in translation in 2010, but only this year, early in 2017, did I reach it down from the bookcase. (I never read books when they first appear, avoiding the chatter of reviews and conversations. Reading a novel, of all things, is a solitary affair.)

Pamuk is a natural-born storyteller. The novel opens with the narrator, Kemal, describing a passionate afternoon in bed with his lover, Füsun.

In that moment, on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, at about a quarter to three, just as we felt ourselves to be beyond sin and guilt so too did the world seem to have been released from gravity and time.

Kemal was 30, the heir to an Istanbul business fortune. He would soon be engaged to Sibel, an ambassador’s daughter who, ‘according to everyone, was the perfect match.’ Füsun was a teenager, a distant, poor relation. How could anyone not read on, to discover what happens next?

Kemal happily imagines that he can keep both relationships going in parallel. Sibel is an elegant woman from the same ‘westernised’ upper class of Istanbul society as himself. Her family proudly says she has ‘studied at the Sorbonne,’ by which they mean, she has spent some time in Paris shopping, having affairs, and attending a few public lectures. Füsun is also beautiful and thoughtful, although barely 18 and the daughter of a seamstress. The closest she has been to Paris is working in the pretentious Şanzelize Boutique which sells fake european clothes.

Kemal cannot get Füsun out of his head. He allows the engagement to Sibel to fall apart, but then finds that Füsun has fled, distraught at his dishonesty. He finally tracks her down, living with her parents. He starts to visit, acting the benevolent, rich relation. Soon he is at their door regularly, tolerating their humble home as the price of being able to gaze on Füsun. Sometimes she smiles at him. The days become weeks. The weeks become months.

Kemal neglects his business. He loses touch with old friends and gives up visiting fashionable restaurants and nightclubs. In the years that follow Turkey is riven by political turmoil. There is a military takeover. Bombs and gun battles become regular occurrences. Kemal hardly notices, however, as he pursues his obsessive love. When not with Füsun, he passes the time being driven around Istanbul by his faithful chauffeur, observing moodily through the windows of the old Chevrolet how the city is changing . The ancient quarters of Istanbul are steadily being demolished and replaced by concrete apartment blocks. Kemal realises he is happiest with Füsun’s family, surrounded by the tasteless ornaments of their crowded living room, cosily watching television together.

Füsun finally relents and agrees to marry Kemal, but this decision only triggers a tragic death that seems inevitable. He still cannot let go of his obsession with her, buying the family’s house and turning it into a museum dedicated to Füsun. This shrine contains objects which remind him of her, and are infused with emotion. The actual cinema tickets from when they saw a movie together. Her shoe and a little white sock, carefully labelled and lit in a cabinet like prehistoric relics. The stub of a  cigarette once held between her lips. There is even the door knob from Füsun’s childhood bedroom, sacred because she touched it so many times with her hand. This is the eponymous museum where Kemal now approaches the novelist, ‘Orhan Pamuk,’ and asks him to write his story.

The story is as seductive as Füsun, though we are never actually told what she looks like. As with the city of Istanbul, she is evoked rather than described. The novel has also been criticised for long passages where ‘nothing happens,’ for its repetition and length. These are integral to Pamuk’s hypnotic, seductive style, however. They are classic aspects of the oral storytelling mode which he draws on, circling round and round his love for Füsun until the awful conclusion. We relax and let his voice carry us forward, as though sitting with author, sipping raki on a balcony as the Bosphorus flows past.

Kemal cannot move forward with his life, yet cannot go back in time either. Like all of us, he is cursed with memory. He cannot relinquish his love of Füsun which he feels the only thing of worth in his life. (At his lowest ebb, he lies in bed, licking the door knob, which ends up in the museum, because she has touched it countless times.) The Museum of Innocence is about Turkey too, tugged between european and middle-eastern cultures. (The recent history of the country makes the novel even more poignant in this regard.) It’s about Istanbul and its inhabitants, aspiring to be modern and cosmopolitan, yet unable to let go of old ways which feel more familiar and authentic. It’s about how men and women regard each other. Most of all, the novel is about how can we live with the knowledge that each treasured moment is doomed to become the past? For Kemal, the everyday clutter of life seals his memories in amber – saving these objects becomes a way to cling on to past happiness.

Pamuk’s wry protagonist can seem at times like the last Romantic hero. He can equally be seen as a sad, pathetic fool who has wasted his life (yet what else was Goethe’s Werther?) Kemal also has much in common with Nabokov’s Humbert in Lolita – a charming, self-deprecating narrator who invites sympathy for his obsessive love. Like Humbert, Kemal’s charm distracts the reader from his actual treatment of the woman he idolises. Like Humbert with Lolita, Kemal projects his emotional obsession onto Füsun without consideration of what she actually feels or thinks or wants herself. Both women are denied any possibility of independent being by the protagonists until the very end. In Füsun’s case, she can only escape Kemal and declare independence by her own death. Through his museum, Kemal even attempts to control her after she is dead, packing it with his memories alone.

Iris Murdoch once wrote that love is the remarkable discovery that another person actually exists beside oneself. If this is love – unlike the one-sided passion of the Japanese folk tale – then Kemal remains a stranger to it until the end. This is the real tragedy at the heart of the novel.

In a curious twist of fiction and fact, Pahuk has bought a house in Istanbul and turned it into the Museum of Memory of the novel. In 2014, it won the European Museum of the Year Award.

Image: Photograph of Eve Cohen

The last living baby boomer

 1 January 2067

The last surviving member of the baby boomer generation – Jake Patch – passed away today at the Woodstock Retirement Village, cradled in the arms of his robot carer, Mia.

A few months before his death, Jake was interviewed by the BBC (British Breitbart Company), and an excerpt is reproduced below.

Thanks for sparing us your precious time, Jake. Could you start by reminding us what it was like growing up in the middle of the last century?

Well, you could say it was a black-and-white world – in more ways than one. Television wasn’t in colour at first, of course (if you had one), but the rest of life was like that too. Things could be tough. It was normal for teachers as well as parents to beat us, even little children. Imagine that! Racial discrimination was perfectly legal. The same went for harassing people sexually. Being homosexual was against the law, however. Gay people were just thrown in prison. There was litter everywhere. The food was crap too. It sounds like a dystopian movie, doesn’t it, but I swear it was true.

 

How about when you got older?

Only a tiny proportion of people went to university, about 3%. When you did finally get a job, it was expected you would stay there all your life until you retired. Everybody smoked all the time, even in offices and restaurants. If you got pregnant, you were sacked. There were times that inflation was rising daily – staff had to race around supermarkets changing the prices every week. If you wanted to buy a house, mortgage interest rates were as high as 18%! Why people got nostalgic about those days, I have no idea . . .

 

It sounds grim. How did your generation respond?

We went rogue. We invented pop music. We grew our hair and became hippies. Later we cut it again and became punks. We took all the drugs we could find, discovered the secret of the universe and forgot it by the morning.  We made a sexual revolution, invented feminism, bent genders, knocked down the Berlin Wall and destroyed communism. We were the generation that ran away from home and travelled the world. We went environmental back in the seventies. We went to the moon. We invented the Internet. Is there anything I’ve forgotten?

 

So how does it feel to be the only baby boomer still alive?

Like being the last Regency rake – a member of the Hellfire Club – surrounded in old age by stuffy, repressed Victorians.

 

Any regrets?

Yes. That we brought our children, and our children’s children up to be such whining, self-righteous, over-sensitive, puritanical pricks.

 

Isn’t that a bit judgmental?

Of course! I should have added ‘deaf to humour’ too, after talking to you for 10 minutes!

 

*** A break in the interview as Jake’s laughter turned to a coughing fit. After a reviving shot of morphine and a head massage by Mia, the interview resumed.***

 

You’ve lived for well over a 100 years. Lowlights and Highlights?

Lowlight – definitely the year 2016. That’s when everything changed . . .
Highlight – seeing the Rolling Stones perform their farewell gig at Burning Man on Mick’s 100th birthday.

 

Your hopes for the future?

That I live long enough to vote at the next election. Four terms is enough for President Ivana!

 

The music for your funeral?

Neil Young, ‘Harvest Moon’.

 

Any last words?

Après nous, le déluge.

 

The sad tears of Christa Wolf, or The country that disappeared

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Where were you when the Berlin Wall came down? It’s one of those days you remember, like 9/11 or when John Lennon was shot. Did you find out from the evening news? Were you at work, school, or not even a twinkle in your parents’ eyes?

I watched it happen from a hotel room in Alice Springs, in the centre of Australia. Outside, the desert heat was unbearable, like the end of the world in a sci fi movie. Even the flies were hiding from the sun. Inside, my air conditioning was on high and the curtains half-closed against the brightness beyond. The television was on and I was gripped by scenes taking place in wintry Berlin on the other side of the world.

During the 1970s I had lived in Germany for a while, and been a member of the Communist Party. It was with special interest, then, that I watched the scenes in Berlin. People were swarming over the Wall while soldiers stood by with embarrassed faces. Some perched on top, playing guitars. Others swung sledgehammers, sending chunks of concrete flying through the air, to cheers from the crowd. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The fall of the Berlin Wall became a symbolism of the collapse of Communism. One by one, countries in the Russian empire overthrew their rulers and became democratic republics. There was one exception, though, a country which didn’t follow that path. Instead, it was simply eliminated. It disappeared. That country was the DDR or Democratic Republic of Germany – East Germany.

To people in the West watching the amazing scenes on TV, it seemed obvious that the two Germanies would reunite, in a de facto takeover of the ‘defeated’ DDR. To people watching from inside East Germany, though, things weren’t so simple. One of these was Christa Wolf, the country’s most celebrated author. She lived under surveillance by the dreaded Stasi but was protected by her fame. Although a lifelong Communist, she was not blind to the regime’s flaws, exploring with searing honesty in her novels the political, social, and moral challenges it raised.

Christa Wolf and many others saw that the DDR had developed its own culture over the past half century which was worth preserving in a ‘Third Way,’ keeping the best of both Germanies: free and democratic, yet also retaining the unremarked benefits of life in the DDR. Abolishing the country was ‘dangerous prattle,’ she insisted, warning against ‘the sell-out of our material and moral values’ to the feverish pursuits of western consumerism. The appeal was idealistic, ascetic, and nostalgic, all in one.

Most westerners thought of East Germany in superficial spy movie terms: all Checkpoint Charlie, glamorous spies, and screeching violins on the soundtrack. And it was, of course, a classic totalitarian state on the Soviet model. Yet in truth, most East Germans did not lie awake at night worrying about human rights. The Stasi was just a fact of life. While many envied capitalist countries their material wealth, citizens of the DDR led a more secure, placid, ‘old-fashioned’ life than people in the West. Health care was free. Education was free. Cultural activities and holiday resorts were subsidised. Everyone had a place to live – there was supposedly no such thing as homelessness. A job was assured for everyone too – unemployment and begging were unknown. Looking around in 2016, we too may covet at least some aspects of this forgotten, abolished land at the heart of Europe.

In the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Christ Wolf spoke on East German television and at a massive demonstration in Alexanderplatz. ‘Help us to create a real democratic society, one that also preserves the vision of democratic socialism,’ she cried. ‘Imagine it’s socialism and no one wants to leave!’

But leave they did, of course. Life in the West would surely be like the ads they enviously watched on TV, a cornucopia of Coca-Cola, shiny consumer goods, pop music, and general happily-ever-after-ness. After the fall of the Wall, opposition groups gave in to the mood of the population, and reunification was overwhelmingly approved at an election the following year. What no one foresaw, though, was the radical economic changes that swiftly followed; how quickly familiar goods and brands disappeared from shops, to be replaced by cheaper, less durable western products. Brands and signage (like the familiar pedestrian crossing sign man) were replaced wholesale by West German versions.

Even how people spoke was different. Over a couple of generations, vocabulary and syntax had diverged in the two countries, with the West heavily influenced by American culture. In the DDR, traditional pre-war ways of speaking persisted. For example, ‘That makes sense’ translates as ‘Das hat Sinn.’ West Germans however, often say ‘Das macht Sinn,’ influenced by the English wording. You go shopping in a ‘Kaufhalle’ in the East, while West Germans now use the Americanised ‘Supermarkt’. There are hundreds of examples, even including how to say the time.

Disillusion soon followed reunification. For the first time, East Germans had to deal with the trauma of competing with each other for jobs, housing, and social esteem, instead of being part of a coherent, if totalitarian, society. Shops were full of unfamiliar brands. The street signs were different. The newsreader on television spoke in an unfamiliar way. West Germans patronised the East and made jokes about bumbling ‘Ossies’. It was all very disconcerting. Their country had been taken from them.

Within a few years, a survey found that the majority of East Germans wished life was as it had been before the Wall came down – not politically, but that their daily lives were more secure, familiar, and homely again. A new word was coined, ‘Ostalgie’.

And what of Christa Wolf? Her reputation dipped, then rose again so that by her death in 2014 she was acknowledged as one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers in German. She acknowledged naivety in hoping that her country could be saved in 1989, but confessed to a longing for what-might-have-been, as for a phantom limb that she still could feel. Going shopping, she would seek out an old pack of wooden clothes pegs from DDR days, rather than buy modern plastic ones. The feeling was more than simple nostalgia, however. She was made of sterner intellectual fibre than that.

Interviewed in 2005, Wolf remained a socialist, deeply concerned about the impact of drastic economic and social changes on people’s lives since the disappearance of the DDR and reunification:

It’s a society in crisis. Its population groups are drifting apart and it’s increasingly losing its power of integration. Large numbers of ‘superfluous’ people are being created, and that’s dangerous. Our society is starting to abandon its humanitarian value canon in favour of neo-liberal ‘values’. Many individuals first of all have to fight for a place in society, then they have to fight to keep it.
(Die Zeit, 29 September, 2005.)

Ten years on – in the age of the gig economy, the Trump ascendancy and the rise of the Right – her words remain truer than ever.

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CONFESSIONS OF A TIME-TRAVELLER

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As Einstein understood, to travel in time and space is not so very different.
They are, in fact, essentially the same.

Anyone who is used to spending 24 hours in a plane flying from Australia back to London Heathrow will understand exactly what I mean. Even after doing this regularly for over 20 years, I experience the same weird disorientation every time after landing. Everything is utterly strange and utterly familiar at the same time.

As always, I pick up a car and start the long drive westward. I love the transition from hellish airport to the six-laned M4 towards the Severn Bridge, then it becomes four lanes, then two as I dive deeper into Wales. How suddenly the names of town and villages change from English to Welsh in the borderlands. Nether Skyborry and Bicton on one side of a river. Bryn Melin and Llangunllo a few hundred metres to the west.

No more lines of trucks barrelling by now, only the occasional tractor. At last I am in a laneway between tall hedgerows tangled with honeysuckle, barely wider than the car, and I bump over rough ground into a farmyard in sight of the sea. I have arrived. In the days that follow, I slip easily into a different vocabulary. I give distances in miles not kilometres. The vehicle is a 4X4 and I came by the motorway route, I say (not on the freeway in a 4WD). Catching up with my brother in a pub, I don’t order chips to go with my schooner of beer, but some crisps and a pint of Seren IPA. My speech drifts back to the familar English falling intonation, sentences drawling to near-whisper at the end (instead of my Australian up-tick on the final word). After a week, I find myself talking Welsh in local shops and pubs.

All of this is done unconsciously, but what still foxes me is the sense of having travelled back in time. For all the tumultous changes in Britain over the last half-century, Wales remains hidden in plain sight and largely unchanged behind the Cambrian mountains. In the hinterland of the west, the deep green hills and woodlands, the rocky coast, the towns and villages where I spent half my life look barely any different. I could drive for hours in any direction and know every turn in the road, every hedgerow, every pub and village hall.

As well as visiting family and friends, I am going to a college reunion, meeting up with people I haven’t seen for decades. I go with a macabre curiosity, wondering if I will recognise anyone. We’re all a little weather-beaten by the years but utterly recognisable with the same strong personalities. As I stagger saunter back through the college quad to my room at 3 AM, feeling disgracefully sentimental, the eerie feeling returns. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find my younger self walking toward me out of the shadows with a smile of recognition.

Once again I feel like a traveller in time. Am I a visitor from the past who has materialised in the present? Or a creature from the future (my glittering city on the other side of the planet), fallen to earth in the past I had left behind?

Both are true, I realise, as I drift to sleep, hearing the town hall clock chime the quarter-hour. The future is only a past we have yet to discover. As each moment unrolls and become a memory, it gives a strange thrill to everyday life, an existential tingle. We are all travellers in time.

A modest proposal – let’s have a referendum every day

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The Brexit Referendum in Britain has been a triumph of participatory democracy.
Let’s learn from it . . .

Like it or not, the people have spoken in a way that cannot be denied. This is surely the way forward for 21st Century government – in Australia as well as Britain. Imagine if every citizen could download an official Referendum app, so they could vote every day on the major issues that face us. When everyone on your train home is staring at their phone, they won’t just be checking Facebook, they’ll be running the country!

This would be a true, instant democracy that the ancient Greeks could never have dreamed of. Every citizen in the country could have their say and #takecontrol of national policy-making.

On euthanasia, for example, discussion by ‘experts’ and politicians about mercy killing has gone round and round for years without achieving anything. Yet polls consistently show a big majority the population support it – so let’s just ask the people in a referendum, and trust the wisdom of the public. We can take the same approach to solving asylum-seeker policy and other contentious issues too.

Or the live export of cattle . . . instead of tiresome parliamentary committees listening to veterinary and farming ‘experts’ droning on, we could cut to the chase and simply ask every Australian via their smartphone, ‘Do you want to ban live export of cattle? Yes or No.’ Job done.

Let’s have a referendum on reducing taxes at the same time as expanding public services. It’s a no-brainer.

Let’s ask the people about execution as a mandatory sentence for paedophiles . . . I think we’d all agree on that one.

The so-called ‘experts’ have fooled us for too long. We could even have a referendum on climate change, for example, to get a definitive answer to whether it’s real or not. Why did no one ever think of that before?

Let the people speak!

Mapplethorpe: Look at the pictures

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Scandal suited Robert Mapplethorpe. He wore it proudly, like a scarlet cloak. . .

That notoriety has evolved, these days, into a hushed, academic reverence. His photographs are not produced in court on charges of obscenity now, but hang on the walls of major galleries around the world (the National Gallery of Australia owns over 60 of them). The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation sells tasteful notecards and Limoges porcelain decorated with his images of flowers. Despite this latter-day respectability, we should never ignore the power of his images to brutally shock and challenge how we view our bodies and ourselves. A new documentary film from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, released in Australia this month, is an important reminder of his importance as an artist who used a camera.

Mapplethorpe was a complex, ruthlessly ambitious figure: an egoistic pansexual charmer, more than willing to use relationships to further his career. This is as nothing, however, next to his mastery of photography. Whatever his subject, the image – always in black-and-white – creates a still space around it, compelling the viewer’s contemplation and challenging us to see it (and our response) afresh.

Mapplethorpe first came to prominence for portraits taken when he was living with Patti Smith at New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the 1970s: not only of Smith’s fellow-musicians like Iggy Pop, Deborah Harry, and Laurie Anderson, but established figures, including Truman Capote, William Burroughs, and Susan Sontag. He was soon a sought-after portraitist. There were his exquisite photographs of flowers too, familiar now from ubiquitous calendars and posters. It was photography of the human body, though, which Mapplethorpe commanded as his own terrain.

Between zoology and pornography lies – sprawls – the art of the nude.

Mapplethorpe refused to acknowledge any distinction between these categories, judging the tasteful ‘artistic’ nude a hypocritical fiction which denied an essential part of our humanity. As Sir Kenneth Clarke acknowledged in his seminal study on the topic, ‘No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals’.

There is often more than ‘vestigial’ erotic feeling aroused by Mapplethorpe’s nude studies, mostly of beautiful, young black men.

‘Photography and sexuality have a lot in common,’ he explains. ‘Both are question marks, and that’s precisely what excites me most in life.’

Friends and lovers, dancers, porn stars, and body builders (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) were all called before his camera to create images full of this questioning. Whatever is pictured – however shocking – has an anatomical exactitude emphasised by the lighting, by the precision of black-and-white film, and most of all by Mapplethorpe’s skill with the camera. Each image invites contemplation. The poses are often reminiscent of classical statuary, with an abstract beauty of form, heads cropped out so that a face does not distract from our focus on the naked body. The studies of body builder, Lisa Lyon, are typical. Lisa is sexually provocative as she poses naked but for a wedding veil or coating of dried mud, yet also challenges the viewer’s reaction as she simultaneously flexes her enormous muscles. Is this art? A porn shoot? A bodybuilder’s catalogue?  The only answer is yes to all, and more . . .

Many of Mapplethorpe’s images are far more overtly erotic. Acts of sexual penetration and nudes with erect penises are recorded with the same skill, dispassionate curiosity, and artistic gaze as Mapplethorpe gives to the unfurling petals of an orchid. Patti Smith comments on these photographs, ‘As Cocteau said of a Genet poem, “His obscenity is never obscene”‘.

In 1989, the refusal of Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery to display an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photographs sparked a national controversy in the US about art and obscenity. Senator Jesse Helms fulminated publicly about the images, dismissing them as ‘blasphemy’. In the following years, reproductions of his photographs were periodically confiscated as illegal pornography, including a seizure by South Australia Police in 2000. In all cases, the photographs were eventually judged to be not ‘obscene’ and returned. In response to this condemnation, some critics have described his images in defensive, highly aesthetic language, rhapsodising in precious terms about how they resemble Renaissance paintings.

The perceptions of Mapplethorpe’s photographs as both pornographic and deeply serious art are actually both true. He intended these images to be challenging. ‘He loved to get a jolt out of people,’ recalls a friend in the documentary. In doing so, he dares us to contemplate these scenes innocently, without judgement, and to examine our own tumble of responses: shock, arousal, curiosity, awe, and even humour. In the words of Roman dramatist, Terence, Mapplethorpe’s challenge to the viewer is, ‘I am human; nothing human is strange to me’.

When Jesse Helms waved a sheaf of Mapplethorpe’ photographs in the US Senate, excoriating their obscenity, he shouted, ‘Just look at the pictures!’ as though this were enough to condemn them. In a fitting irony, film makers, Bailey and Barbato, have taken Helms at his word, and used the phrase as the title of their new documentary.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is showing at Palace Cinemas in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide during May and June 2016, as part of the Essential Independents: American Cinema Now series.

 

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Image: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Polio: the great terror

Polio epidemics were an annual source of terror until 50 years ago, leaving thousands of children dead, disabled (having to wear metal callipers on their legs), or condemned to life in an iron lung, like a coffin with your head sticking out.

I wish every ‘anti-vaxxer’ in the country could read this book, which I review in this month’s Australian Book Review.

Do you want to know a secret?

A secret, once told, is a secret no longer . . .

Once shared, a secret hardens into ‘a fact’, one of those awkward, sharp-edged pieces of reality that we have to accommodate in our lives. Have you ever kept a secret from those closest to you? No? Not one, ever . . ? We all do at some time, of course (even it’s a matter of being ‘economical with the truth’). The universal excuse we make is that it saves hurting people’s feelings. And that’s not something easily dismissed.

But what would happen if our deepest secrets were made brutally visible to everyone? If some Edward Snowden of the heart decided the world would be a better place without lies? What would be the consequences of truth? This is the terrifying question at the heart of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which Simon Stone has adapted in his first movie, The Daughter.

Film versions of stage plays are notoriously difficult to carry off, usually trapped in a box of static interior action (with the occasional exterior shot for atmosphere). In The Daughter, Stone does not attempt to make a film version of his acclaimed Belvoir Theatre adaptation of The Wild Duck, but re-imagines the play again entirely against the backdrop of the Snowy Mountains. The extended opening scene shows a beautiful, still high country landscape. Vast banks of mist cushion the mountains, as though insulating them from harsher realities beyond. At last the crack of a gunshot shatters the peace, and the action begins.

Oliver (Ewen Leslie) works at the local timber mill which is closing down. He breaks the news to his wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young). They are a strong, loving family, and you feel they are tough enough to weather this challenge. Oliver’s father, Walter (Sam Neill) lives in a caravan behind their house, pottering around and looking after wounded animals and birds (wild duck alert). Modest domestic scenes between the four of them are surprisingly moving, a testimony to superb acting talent as well as Stone’s script and direction.

Up at the ‘big house’ meanwhile (filmed at Camden Park House, NSW), the local landowner, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), is preparing for his marriage to Anna (Anna Torv). She is young enough to be his daughter, but it only seems crass when someone points out the age difference. They clearly love one another. The closure of his timber mill has been shrugged off; Henry evidently has plenty of other assets. Christian (Paul Schneider), his son from a first marriage, returns after 16 years in the US for the wedding. When Christian meets Oliver (they are old school friends), a spark arcs between the two families. A circuit is closed, and the destruction of their peaceful existence begins. Henry’s carefully-named son is like a serpent bringing the curse of knowledge into their garden of innocence. If he cannot be happy, then nor shall anyone else.

As Christian exposes the secret, and then the secret-within-the-secret, everything leads back to his father, Henry. Geoffrey Rush loves vaudeville and clowning and draws on these traditions in some of his film roles, but he has a nice line in buttoned-up, conflicted middle-aged men too. It is a delight to see him act so minimally here by force of character it seems, rather than through grand speech or gesture. Henry is nothing but polite and considerate to the other characters. He is anxious to please and do the best for everyone, providing generous packages to the workers at the mill when it closes. Yet in the end, everything is his fault. It could also be said that nothing is his fault either. The action of the play unfolds with the inevitability of a Greek drama, as though it were all fated to happen.

Henry’s crimes and misdemeanours might be blamed on his sense of privilege, but secrets are not the prerogative of any social class. Adjusting other people’s view of the world, by what we say and do not say, is intrinsic to how we operate. Secrets great and small are part of the human condition. Exploring the consequences of this was Ibsen’s project, and is Simon Stone’s too in this new movie. It seeks to understand not to condemn.

While the men in the story are rendered helpless or crumble under the weight of the truth, it is the two main female characters who remain strong and decisive. Charlotte rushes into action to prevent the secret escaping, desperately trying to hold the hold the men together as they emotionally collapse. It is Hedvig, her fifteen year-old daughter though – as luminously played by Odessa Young – who is at the centre of the movie. She is the kind of girl you might have yearned to have as a friend at school: intelligent and conscientious, tomboyish and sexually adventurous with her boyfriend, always ready with smartass remarks yet warm, loving, and close to both her parents. When she, too, learns the secret, Hedvig’s reaction is the most mature of all the characters. By this time, though, her father has been reduced to a snivelling, angry mess, unable to respond. She then takes the decision which reverberates long after the closing credits.

For his debut movie, Stone wisely ensured he had some of the best in the business on his team: Jan Chapman as a producer, Andrew Commis as cinematographer, and Veronika Jenet as editor, among others. His direction is assured and subtle, as in the slow, horrific exposure of Christian from fresh-faced prodigal to the demonic messenger he truly is, haunting the corridors and shadows of the great house where he grew up, and where actions first became secrets. Particularly impressive is the way Stone works with his actors to convey emotional intensity and meaning through scenes of quiet intensity, as when Hedvig silently watches from the school bus when her boyfriend packs up to leave town without having had the courage to tell her.

The Daughter is a masterly film.

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HelenHayward

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As babies we find out a lot about the world we are born into by deciding what we want to swallow and what we want to spit out – the good from the bad, the delicious from the gross. Before we have words we put the world in our mouth. We love things by chewing on them. Our likes and dislikes, what we want and what we don’t, are sucked on or spurned. Whatever we can grab we mouth. Or we’ll just stare at it, lying on our backs in a nappy.

On growing up we quickly become expert in what we don’t want – our No is nearly always more energetically defended than our Yes. Our whole world, as children, is reassuringly black and white. Either we embrace it or we keep at bay. What is bad is yuk, to be mistrusted and quickly gotten rid of. What we…

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