With the buzzy Indie-music and awkward first date encounters in the trailer, I was tricked into thinking this film was going to be a soppy rom-com (exactly what the advertising agency wanted me to think, probably). Much to my surprise, Daphne is a highly socially-aware and bleak portrait of a young woman stuck in the big-city grind from director Peter Mackie Burns – a man who hasn’t directed much aside from a short film in 2005 and a smattering of theatre pieces. Burns, however, show’s very few signs of ineptitude.
Emily Beecham’s subtle performance as the baggy-eyed titular character shows a woman numb from her stressful job and the dreariness of life in South London – her acting is starkly convincing. She appears blank around her friends and colleagues and dismissive of her mother (Geraldine James), who has turned to alternative medicine after a cancer diagnosis (‘bullshit’, as Daphne calls it).
To fill the void, Daphne spends her time basking in pure hedonism; heavy drinking, snorting cocaine in dingy bathrooms and seducing young men. But when trying to buy paracetamol to soothe a hazy night’s headache she witnesses a stabbing, throwing her out of the comfortably numb state she’s used to. Dreary and dimly-lit camera work seems to mimic her increasing sense of desperate nihilism as she begins to realise how empty she is.
The film-makers seem to really understand how to develop this complex character while dabbling in the grim subject matter. The script keeps things fresh – there are constant flashes of philosophy and social commentary, which never sound overly flatulent, colliding with dry wit. Again, credit must be given to Beecham, for balancing this concoction of tone. The funniest scenes have Daphne’s phlegmatic cynicism play off against her unsuspecting male catches. She calmly calls one man a ‘penis’, for example, when he tries to flaunt her to his friends whilst they are walking home, then promptly leaves him on the dark street.
Burns has crafted an interesting and unique piece of social-realism; an intricate picture of a thirty-one year old woman failing to escape her twenties, overwhelmed by her own life and the choices she makes. For a first feature-length film, this is astounding – the British film scene will be keeping a close eye on Burns in the coming years. Admittedly, this film is not the best choice for a fun Saturday night at the pictures, but if you are in the mood for some wry existential reflection, Daphne is the perfect accompaniment.
Image: Agatha A. Nitecka