Possibly earning the crowning achievement of being the most under-the-radar film at this year's Toronto International Film Festival is a project hailing from Spain and director Manuel Martín Cuenca. The Daughter (La hija in Spanish) revolves mostly around two different daughters depending on how you wish to look at it, main focus being on Irene (played by Irene Virgüez Filippidis), a 15-year-old girl who gets taken in by Javier (Javier Gutiérrez) and Adela (Patricia López Arnaiz), a couple living in a mountainous area. It turns out that Irene is escaping from a juvenile centre where Javier works at 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 Miguel (Juan Carlos Villanueva). Thrills and pressures increase as Irene and the couple begin to lose trust in each other and authorities show up searching for her.
Much 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 momentum or pace in the thriller genre. The thriller essence of the movie comes with clever moments with a certain investigator, a calm yet 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 since it shreds like a metal breakdown. Emotional beats are there but they're saved for right moments and during those Filippidis takes the centre stage while it never looks like this is her first film role, which it is.
The screenplay by Cuenca and co-writer Alejandro Hernández carefully weaves in and out of those moments while the subtext will leave the viewer thinking about themes of motherhood, autonomy of one's body and where, if anywhere, does one cross the line from good intentions to evil acts. While the film would work great just with these questions, what makes it stand out more is that there's more gravitas in how it all is presented. Oppressive but playful score by the band Vetusta Morla is effective despite being minimal 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. Let it boil, I say.
Smileys: Score, cinematography, Javier Gutiérrez, Irene Virgüez Filippidis, screenplay
Frowneys: Nothing too distracting
In between watching high-concept, low-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 biographical drama Benediction takes a look at 20th-century poet and writer Siegfried Sassoon, played by Jack Lowden when younger and Peter Capaldi when older, from his service during the World War I to a stint in psychological care in a hospital, and to his high-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 World War I included, scenes don't always start when you'd expect them to start and Capaldi's Sassoon also appears in the film rather randomly. Mixed with structural decisions that keep you on the edge of your seat is the sharply delivered and terrifically witty dialogue; it's also challenging in a way that many period films aren't these days.
Lowden's version of Sassoon grows more on you as the film progresses and while a cut such as one 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 his delicious dialogue. Here and there Lowden has moments where the screen chemistry seems off with another actor, though often it's because Lowden is controlling the scene much more. Namely Jeremy Irvine's take on Ivor Novello seems to be made from cardboard when he is supposed to appeal to men around him. In those particular moments, you can thankfully be distracted by solid craftsmanship like costumes and sets which do compliment Sassoon's personality and life.
Smileys: Structure, dialogue
Frowneys: Jeremy Irvine