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.

Kurzel’s Macbeth

I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more, is none.

Does the world need another movie of Macbeth?

Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish play’ has been filmed over 20 times. Most recently in a BBC version with Patrick Stewart (2010) and Geoffrey Wright’s Melbourne gangland interpretation with Sam Worthington (2006). Most notably in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and  Polanski’s 1971 film, with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis in the title roles. In 2015, we have a new interpretation by Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, The Turning) starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Shot in Scotland with an Australian director and Irish-German and French leads, this new version is billed – naturally – as a new American movie.

Many of the films have followed stage productions, keeping a focus on the two main characters as they descend into a hell of their own making, much as contending armies are described in the opening of the play, ‘As two spent swimmers that do cling together, And choke their art.’ Other characters, the settings, and landscapes are there essentially as a backdrop to the horror of the Macbeths’ self-destruction, taking so many others with them.

Kurzel’s Macbeth, though, is a spectacle in the best sense of the word. The bleakly-beautiful landscapes and settings (not to mention an impressive cast), all work together together as a fluid unity which complements the text. It feels more Scandinavian than Scottish at times (a reminder that much of the country was a Viking colony in the Middle Ages), Each frame is like a carefully assembled canvas, with close-ups of faces, mountains, lakes, and washes of colour and motion. This painterly aspect of the film reminds me of Symbolist artists such as Rops, Moreau, or Redon, where the stylised landscape similarly ‘orchestrates’ the emotions of the human drama portrayed. It’s no coincidence that Kurzel worked in set design (for Bell Shakespeare among other companies) before turning to directing; the film’s art direction is superb.

This Macbeth was born of a conversation between Kurzel and Fassbender, so it is ironic that the leading man’s portrayal of the tragic hero of the play is the weakest part of the film. The actor brings his familiar professionalism and intensity to the performance. Fassbender has spoken in interviews of imagining Macbeth as a soldier traumatised by the savage losses in his life – including a dead child whose funeral is seen at the start of the film. He attempts to fill this loss with yet more savagery, murdering Duncan to achieve the ‘safety’ of becoming king himself. All the actor’s intensity seems turned inward however. Macbeth so often seems to be talking to himself rather than for the audience’s benefit. Shakespeare always requires a little flamboyance (however subtly done) to bring out the colour and poetry and majesty of the lines, yet Fassbender seems to deliberately avoid this in his performance. To see how he plays the famous ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech, and then compare with how Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan do the same is an education.

Macbeth belongs to Marion Cotillard, however. She moves convincingly from a sexual temptress – taunting her husband to show he is a man by killing his king – to a weeping mad creature, horrified at the monster she has created. She is an extraordinary actress.

The film is worth seeing for her performance alone, but so much more too.


Objects of desire

It’s only January 2014, but already I’m confident that Spike Jonze’s Her is one of the  strangest and most poignant movies I’ll see this year.

Set ‘slightly in the future’, the story is a romance between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and the ‘her’ of the title. She, however, is a computer interface. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, she is like a futuristic version of Siri, exquisitely designed to respond to his needs for information, for assistance with his life, for companionship. She understands him better than anyone. Theodore takes her everywhere with him on his iPhone-like device. The relationship deepens, then takes an unexpected turn . . .

Widely-praised and Oscar-nominated in the US, the movie has provoked much hand-wringing discussion about our contemporary dependence on iPhones and similar devices. And it’s true they have changed our lives in a few short years. We have perfect knowledge, thanks to always-on Internet access in our pockets. No one needs to have long arguments about ‘who was in that Scorsese movie’  anymore. We have perfect communication, able to call or Skype anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Thanks to Siri, we can simply ask for what we want and get a polite spoken response back. It’s like having a super-smart PA who never sleeps. No wonder that people feel uncomfortable when their phone is not in easy reach.

There is an undeniable personal relationship between ourselves and our devices too, which Her cleverly explores. Think how many times a day you touch and stroke your phone, then count how often you do it with someone close to you.

This portrayal of a relationship with an imaginary being is not new. Think of Lars and the Real Girl (2007), in which Ryan Gosling convincingly acted a man who falls in live with a blow-up doll.  And there’s Pygmalion, of course, who brought his statue, Galatea, to life in the same story, told for the first time thousands of years ago.  What they have in common is projection of an idealised relationship onto an object rather than a real person. I was going to write ‘inanimate object’ but with artificial intelligence, that isn’t strictly true any more. In Her, the blowup doll can  talk back. In fact, it doesn’t even need a body. As research shows,  conversations on the Internet are also disinhibited and can move speedily to intimacy as each person projects an ideal onto the other.

This urge for intimacy extending to objects echoes attachment theory in psychology, especially the concept of ‘transitional objects’. In other words, comfort blankets. As infants explore the world beyond their mother’s lap, most of us make some object – a blanket or teddy bear – a ‘transitional object’. This is invested with an almost magical essence of the mother, providing a portable sense of  security and comfort, until the child develops confidence and can do without it.

Projecting relationships onto objects is wired into us therefore. It’s not an aberrant behaviour. When human cultures first developed, animistic and mythological beliefs gave personality and mystical powers to mountains, rocks, trees, and other elements in the world around us. These were believed to have intimate connections with our personal lives, creating a web of relationships with our environment. It was these beliefs which led to the formation of religions, of philosophy and the arts, and eventually to the evolution of modern science in the sixteenth century. The fact that they are not real is beside the point. Imagining these relationships helps us to escape the solitary confinement of our own minds, to reach out and explore our surroundings. It’s a mode of apprehension. In Her, Jonze achieves the difficult task of taking such a relationship to the extreme and exploring the consequences.

In the end, it is not treating objects as humans which causes problems, but the all too common opposite: when we treat other people as though they were merely objects.