Thursday 18 January 2018

On DVD: "Daphne"

Over the past year or so, we've witnessed a handful of films - Sean Spencer's Panic and Thomas Napper's Jawbone foremost among them - which seem to have worked out how to shoot the city of London as a living, breathing entity, both home to millions and a cool, cruel mistress. Daphne, written by Nico Mesinga and directed by Peter Mackie Burns, unfolds in a capital that is almost tangibly recognisable, shying away from the usual tourist landmarks to instead place us within easy reach of 24-hour fried chicken and unexpected knife crime, and within touching distance of happiness (or at least stability) and despair. You can smell the smell of certain street corners, if that doesn't immediately send you running for the hills. In this context, our eponymous heroine (Emily Beecham) comes to seem like part of the scenery, all too visibly muddling through: she has a demanding job as an underling in a moderately successful bistro, but squanders her leisure time on drink, drugs and casual sex, none of which serves to dispel her evident anxiety about her place in the bigger picture. 

For a while, Burns is content that we should shamble alongside her. We have time to spot how the front door of Daphne's flat looks to have been installed back-to-front (no wonder she doesn't know whether she's coming or going), and that she's just as likely to spend her evenings online talking to photos of Ryan Gosling as wake up with another no-good man in her bed. (And you think: yeah, I know somebody like this.) Her latent insecurity heightens anew one night after she witnesses a violent robbery at a minimart, and leaves the scene just as the victim is carried into the back of an ambulance: taking away no clear sense of whether this man has survived the attack or perished, he becomes for her a kind of Schrödinger's shop assistant, the most vivid of the half-lives she trails in her wake, trying not to think too hard or too carefully about. As Daphne confesses to a counsellor late on, in what amounts to a dazzling moment of self-actualisation: "I'm a master of the old duck-and-dive... I'm very adept at ignoring the important questions."

Without once invoking the very contemporary spectre of Tinder, the film is strong on those tentative and tenuous convergences - you can't really call them relationships - that people strike up in cities: with those behind the counter of your local shop, say, or the strangers on the bus, or just someone you keep bumping into on the street. These would be enough to fill the singleton's days with something, but they're palpably not enough; forever running away whenever things start to get serious, Daphne's problem would appear to be a lack of substantial connection, which is not the same as cock by the yard. I suspect some viewers may grow frustrated by the lack of overt narrative progression, but then its Žižek-reading heroine, suspicious of all narratives (including her own), surely wouldn't allow it. At the very least, that circular shambling is true to Daphne's own aimlessness, and Mesinga and Burns do much to imbue every sidebar and each apparent dead end with a certain suspense as to how it might turn out, and - moreover - whether their protagonist will ever pull it together.

What this downtime also accentuates is the director's close and attentive work with actors. Burns sets up revealingly tetchy tête-à-têtes between Daphne and her waspish mother (the ever-excellent Geraldine James); everything you need to know about their relationship can be gleaned from mum's joke about having a spare key cut for Daphne's flat in case her daughter ever kills herself. Then there is Beecham, a credibly nervy redhead whose translucent skin only accentuates those issues lurking close to the character's surface: funny and likable when relaxed, her Daphne is lacerating whenever she's close to the edge (which is more often than not), the actress inviting a sympathy the character would shove right back in our faces, too bullheaded to admit any need for help, or that she might be charting the wrong course. Burns knows he has something special with this performance, whether viewed in tight close-ups that succeed momentarily in pinning Daphne to the spot, or craning up above her as she staggers across a road or torches another bridge, forever searching for either direction or herself. It doesn't always make for a pretty picture, but the British film industry has enough of those right now, and - besides - it's rare to see a homegrown feature with the intelligence to invite us to play psychoanalyst: to scrutinise this woman, and the landscape she walks out of, and to form our own judgement accordingly.

Daphne is available on DVD through Altitude from Monday.  

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