In the last days of a dying logging town, Christian returns to his family home for his father Henry’s wedding. While home, Christian reconnects with his childhood friend Oliver, who has stayed in town working at Henry’s timber mill and is now out of a job. As Christian gets to know Oliver’s wife Charlotte, daughter Hedvig, and father Walter, he discovers a secret that could tear Oliver’s family apart.

A haunting family drama up there with the best of them.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The criticism most commonly lobbed at Australian films is that their scripts seem undeveloped. Nobody’s going to say that about writer-director Simon Stone’s stunning and emotionally powerful feature debut, The Daughter.

Stone, enfant terrible of the Australian theatre scene, knows the base material inside out. First, he took Henrik Ibsen’s tragic 1884 play, The Wild Duck, and modernised it for Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre in 2011, with acclaimed hit seasons following in Melbourne and around the world, including at London’s Barbican Centre’s International Ibsen Season. Now, Stone (whose only other film credit is the very ordinary ‘Reunion’ segment of Tim Winton’s The Turning) has produced an entirely fresh film script with new variations on that classic story: an outsider who visits his hometown after many years away and uncovers secrets that rip several families apart.

The miracle is that after so many years riffing theatrically on The Wild Duck, Stone has been able to produce a script that is not only deeply cinematic (it never thuds and echoes like filmed plays so often do, using the film medium to full effect), but also feels fresh and spontaneous. This is achieved in no small part through pitch perfect performances from a top-shelf cast including Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto, Ewen Leslie, Paul Schneider and newcomer Odessa Young.

"Those of us longing to see more of the romance of the human face in Australian cinema will be well-pleased."

Christian (American actor Paul Schneider) returns to his Australian hometown after sixteen years away to attend the wedding of his logging magnate father (Geoffrey Rush) to his much younger housekeeper (Anna Torv). Unhappily married himself, and a recovering alcoholic, Christian is still angry at his father whom he blames for his mother’s long-ago suicide. While he’s visiting town, he reconnects with his old Uni friend, Oliver (Ewen Leslie) and envies his peaceful life. Oliver – bearded, jovial and the nicest bloke you could imagine – now works in the logging yard and has a truly blissful family existence with his loving wife, Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and their bright and beautiful teenager, Hedvig, played by Odessa Young, who with pink hair, pierced nose and toothy grin gives a revelatory performance infused with the strength and vulnerability of youth. In a van out the back of their ramshackle house lives Oliver’s scraggly and forgetful father (Sam Neill), a ruined man who keeps and rehabilitates injured animals, including a wild duck.

Over the course of the wedding weekend, resentments rise, truths emerge and lives are destroyed. A building sense of impending disaster – and the longing to avert it – drives the story from the first scene: a gunshot ringing out over a misty lake. But don’t assume you know what happens just because you’ve seen one of the many versions of the play.  We are made to care deeply for these particular characters, and this specific version of what is a familiar story with classic melodramatic plot points (Who slept with whom? Who’s the father?).  As Sam Neill’s character tells his devastated son, “Everyone’s got a story like this. It’s as old as the hills.” That doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

One of the pleasures of The Daughter lies in its confident, low-key modernising of classic European material for the Australian setting. The mountainous terrain, tall trees and wintry weather could be Northern Europe, New Zealand or Tasmania, but they’re actually NSW’s Snowy Mountain towns, Tumut and Batlow.  The depiction of the closing of a timber mill and its depressing reverberations for the people who live in the surrounds provides a melancholy backdrop that is both universal and local. The Aussie slang and banter between mates and spouses or between father and daughter (‘You’re such a dag!’) is woven so elegantly around the classical bones of the narrative that you hardly notice it, which is as it should be.

Cinematography by Andrew Commis (The Rocket, The Turning) and editing by Veronika Jenet (The Piano) is a dynamic mix of stillness and movement, landscape shots and close-ups. Those of us longing to see more of the romance of the human face in Australian cinema will be well-pleased. A beautifully spare cello and piano score by Mark Bradshaw (Bright Star, Top of the Lake) builds to a choral conclusion to underline the drama, while creative sound design skillfully evokes a mood of escalating emotionalism, often through dialogue that’s deliberately out of sync with characters on screen.

Producer Jan Chapman’s name is so often a mark of quality – of emotionally affecting drama backed up by visual beauty and technical excellence (think Lantana, The Piano, Bright Star). The Daughter will now be added to that list. It left me sobbing. And that’s a rare and precious thing.