MIFF review: Daphne

A crackling feature debut orbits a magnetic turn from Emily Beecham, all exasperated attitude in a life less obvious. Complicated in all the right ways.

There’s a rare emotional intelligence working in Scottish director Peter Mackie Burns’ debut feature Daphne, bristling with spiky brio and led with smoko break swagger by a career-defining Emily Beecham in the titular role.

Emanating a too-rarely seen complexity in female leads, Daphne, a little bit lost but also pretty cluey, is about as charismatically cantankerous as it’s possible to be. Just north of 30, the solo-living Londoner is a smart cookie who gets a giggle from reading Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek but begrudges the company of other humans, telling one shell-shocked mate in the film’s opening scene, that she’s, “given up on people.” Later she alerts an unwitting young mother on a bus that she’s given up on life too, hairy legs and sports bra and all.

Swerving mawkish pity, however, Daphne is witty enough to charm any and all who hover briefly in her heavy-drinking orbit. That’s down to the magnetism of Beecham. A regular on TV series Into the Badlands who popped up briefly in the Cohen Brothers’ under-appreciated Hail, Caesar!, she captivates in a movie that rarely extends beyond her reach, pleasingly so.

With a glorious head of unruly red hair and cheese-slicing cheekbones, there’s a jaw-dropping thrill to her seemingly off-the-cuff delivery of screenwriter Nico Mensinga’s pithy put downs, including Nathaniel Martello-White’s bemused bouncer tasked with ejecting her from a club, but then later angling for a closely guarded phone number.

Unsure exactly what she want from life, like so many of us, she’s passionate about food but not so much about the restaurant where she works, vaguely flirting with her boss (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor).

Does her avowal that love is an unrealistic construct and her determined independence, replete with coke-filed and/or boozy hook ups soon escaped, stack up as youthful hedonism? Or are forgotten late-night takeaway orders, resulting in a concerned delivery dude checking in on her health and suggesting fresh air, and online ogling of Ryan Gosling while feasting on fried chicken suggest a losing battle with listless melancholy? Perhaps a little of column A and B?

It might play out a little like Girls if that were all there is, and no bad thing, but a moment’s unexpected violence, with shades of Kenneth Lonergan’s long-gestating Margaret, affect a startling gear change that then refuses to play out quite as expected. Daphne also bemoans a complicated relationship with her mother, a brilliant if brief turn for Geraldine James, who has her own health issues to contend with.

Burns, who won the Golden bear for Best Short at the 2005 Berlinale for Milk, expands on ideas from his previous short Happy Birthday to Me, also starring Beecham. A decidedly refreshing take on London life, he’s to be commended for refusing to follow obvious trope and for giving Beecham the space to sell this snappy protagonist’s wandering emotional voyage on her own shoulders.

The sparky film also benefits from cinematographer Adam Scarth’s eye, relishing the midnight blues and traffic light hues of a bustling city captured in widescreen, with an almost 80s aesthetic matching Daphne’s leather jacket. At once pulsing with life and brittle and removed, much like its lead, excellent aerial shots further serve to isolate Daphne, while interiors pop with dazzling Wes Anderson-style colour in stark contrast to Burns’ avowedly realist style.

Life isn’t straightforward, and neither is Daphne, and for that Burns, Beecham and Mensinga all deserve abundant praise for a lived-in film buzzing with its inherent contradictions.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★1/2

Book tickets to see Daphne at MIFF here. Peter Mackie Burns is a guest of the festival and will take part in post-screening Q&As.