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Rotterdam Film Review: ‘Daphne’

Variety logo Variety 2/10/2017 Jay Weissberg
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Did director Peter Mackie Burns and his scriptwriter, Nico Mensinga, mean to make their protagonist one of the more unpleasant characters in recent memory? Presumably not, since Daphne (Emily Beecham, “Into the Badlands”) incongruously has really nice guys falling over her, but maybe the filmmakers simply wanted to say something about how desperate heterosexual male Londoners are these days. “Daphne” tracks a misanthropic 31-year-old chef who witnesses a stabbing; audiences are meant to notice a change in her perspective after the trauma, but the movie fails to make us believe the event has had any impact, and Daphne remains almost as unappealing at the end as she was at the beginning. Sure, Beecham is good, but who wants to spend time with this woman? Sales are unlikely to make an impact.

Clearly Daphne is having a personality crisis, apparent from the start when she’s snide to an old friend (Ritu Arya), later telling her she’s given up on people. That includes her persistent mother, Rita (Geraldine James), beaten back every time she tries to engage with her daughter. Instead, Daphne reads Slavoj Žižek (oooh, she’s an intellectual!) and keeps the world at a distance. The only person she maintains any kind of friendship with is her restaurant-owner boss Joe (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a decent chap who, for unfathomable reasons, is in love with the acerbic cook. Maybe it’s her red hair?

One night she witnesses a convenience store clerk (Amra Mallassi) get stabbed by a thug. Daphne cowers, and when the coast is clear, calls for an ambulance. Life goes on, and, as she tells the shrink offered by victim-support, she didn’t really feel anything for the guy and hasn’t bothered to check up on him in the hospital.  She seems slightly uneasy with her lack of empathy, and maybe she’s drinking a bit more than usual, but viewers aren’t able to tell whether she’s pricklier than before, or just the same.

After being extremely nasty to David (Nathaniel Martello-White), a respectful bartender she verbally abuses when he won’t let her back in a club, you’d think he’d never want to see her again, but for reasons that will escape everyone, he asks her out after a meet-cute at a market. David is charming and warm, so why would he pursue such a curmudgeon? By the end, we’re meant to believe Daphne has softened a bit, that the stabbing has finally triggered a humanistic trip-wire and she’s going to become a better person. Not likely, given how her character has been constructed from the start.

Obviously a sudden shift wouldn’t be believable, and subtle catharses are always more effective than instant ones, but Burns gives us nothing to work with here. Presumably there was a time when Daphne was more engaged with the world, but it’s barely acknowledged, nor is there any explanation as to why she’s fallen into this hole (could it be too much Žižek?). Burns has proven his talent and sensitivity before, notably with the Golden Bear-winning short “Milk,” and there are some notable directorial touches here, such as a shot of Daphne on a descending escalator, her face refracted in numerous mirror panels. It couldn’t have been easy for Beecham to live with this character, and to her credit she doesn’t try to make her likable; the real mystery is why anyone wants so much as a coffee with this character.

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