TIFF 2021: 'The Daughter | 'Benediction' (Reviews)
Possibly getting a crowning achievement of being the film that flew most under the radar at this year's Toronto International Film Festival hails from Spain in control of director Manuel Martín Cuenca. The Daughter (La Hija in Spanish) revolves mostly around a couple of different daughters depending on how you look at it, main focus being on Irene (played by Irene Virgüez), a 15-year-old girl who gets taken in by Javier (Javier Gutiérrez) and Adela (Patricia López Arnaiz), a couple living at a mountainous area. It turns out that Irene is escaping from a juvenile centre where Javier works in and that she's also pregnant, having promised to give the baby to Javier and Adela in return for financial compensation for her and the baby's jailed father. Thrills and pressures increase as Irene and the couple begin to lose trust in each other and while authorities search for her, closing in slowly.
A lot of that setup, which is mainly the film's first act, seems like it has a bunch of elements that would indicate very emotional journeys for the characters. That isn't really the case which is also a good thing because The Daughter never loses its genre (thriller) in the process. The thriller essence of the movie comes with clever moments with a certain investigator, calmly menacing outing from Gutiérrez that thankfully isn't just one-note and the film's absolutely rockstar final act that has you glued to the screen, shredding like a metal breakdown. Emotional beats are there but they're saved for right moments, in those Virgüez takes the centre stage while it never looks like this is her first film role, which it is.
The screenplay by Martín Cuenca and co-writer Alejandro Hernández carefully weaves in and out those moments while the subtext will leave the viewer thinking about themes of motherhood, autonomy of one's body and where, if there is one, does one cross the line from good intentions to evil acts. While the film would work great just with those, what makes it stand out more is that there are more than just ideas present here; oppressive but playful score by Vetusta Morla is effective despite being small at times and Marc Gómez del Moral's cinematography balances the dark, secretive corners of the couple's home with sunny and stunning mountains outside when pressure inside begins to boil over.
Smileys: Score, cinematography, Javier Gutiérrez, Irene Virgüez, screenplay
Frowneys: Nothing really
In between watching high concept, lower intensity stuff that festivals offer, it can be a breath of fresh air to see a biopic with unsatisfied hunger for wordplay. Seasoned director and writer Terence Davies' sinuous Benediction takes a look at 20th-century poet and writer Siegfried Sassoon, played by Jack Lowden as younger version while Peter Capaldi plays the older, from his service during the WW1 to a stint in psychological care in a hospital to his higher class life which included lovers and high-strung relationships.
Davies' approach with Benediction is more in line with poetic memoirs than the typical up-and-down rollercoaster, rags-to-riches narrative structure which you might not realise until half an hour in. There's real photography from the First World War edited in, scenes don't always start when you expect them to and Capaldi's Sassoon also appears a bit randomly. Mixed with structural decisions that keep you on the edge of your seat, is the sharply delivered and terrifically witty dialogue; challenging in a way that many period films are too afraid to touch on these days.
Lowden's version of Sassoon grows more on you as the film progresses, and while a cut like to his last shot can seem a bit theatrical for a character who is a poet, the actor is doing a fine job especially in those scenes with delicious dialogue. Here and there Lowden has moments where the screen chemistry seems off with another actor, though more often it's that Lowden is controlling the scene much more. Namely Jeremy Irvine's take on Ivor Novello seems to made from cardboard when he is supposed to appeal to men around him. In those moments, you'd hope to be distracted by production elements like costumes and sets which thankfully don't seem like cardboard.
Smileys: Structure, dialogue
Frowneys: Jeremy Irvine