Daphne was screened in Birmingham as part of the Flatpack: Assemble project, bringing industry showcases to the city. Daphne will be further screened to the general public at mac from Friday 13th to Thursday 19th October – for direct information, including showtimes, venue details and online ticket sales, click here.
The amorphous structure of Peter Mackie Burns’ feature-length directorial debut perhaps owes something to its origins in a 2013 11-minute short, Happy Birthday to Me. But there’s something oddly compelling about Daphne’s resistance to following cinematic convention, as though, much like its title character, it refuses to be pinned down and made to stick to a single, clearly defined course.
Cinematography by Adam Scarth feels as restless and detached as its subject, both moving passively from one scene to the next, apparently without much sense of where they’re going. And though some inevitably will, viewers aren’t asked to sit in judgement on the character or her story but merely to observe it.
Self-obsessed, single and spiraling steadily out of control, the misanthropic Daphne is almost as unlikely a ‘hero’ as you could imagine. Though she makes a show of independence, her spikiness is little more than a mask for her unwillingness or inability to take control of the life through which she drifts, instinctively ducking out of any encounter where she detects a whiff of change or serious commitment. Because she hasn’t thought of anything better to do yet, Daphne continues to meet up with old school friends she doesn’t really like, stumbles around in a drunken, drug-fueled haze, lives off takeaways she’s forgotten that she ordered and occasionally hooks up with strange men in whom she has no interest.
But when she witnesses a stabbing in a corner shop and stays to save the victim’s life, well… not much changes, actually. After the event, she takes up the offer of counselling, but not because she’s feeling particularly traumatised by what she’s witnessed. In fact, it’s the complete lack of an impact the incident has on her that makes her acknowledge that perhaps there’s something up. As she says to the therapist in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty, “I haven’t felt alive in a long time.”
In conversations around the film, there’s been a lot of emphasis on Daphne’s gender, whether in the form of comparisons with BBC Three’s Fleabag or in accusations of misogyny levelled at critics passing comment on her ‘likeability’. But while Daphne might be part of a new wave of women in film depicted with more unflinching honesty than we’re accustomed to, she’s certainly not the sort of character who’d see herself as any sort of feminist trailblazer. In fact, she largely fails to see herself as anything very much at all.
Arguably it’s this that makes her seem so resonantly real, but perhaps also is at the root of her sometimes being such uneasy company. Though Daphne’s dialogue is often cutting and she is someone who manifestly refuses to give a shit what anyone else things of her, it’s not so much anything she actively says or does that makes her difficult as it is her total inertia. It’s hard to decide what to make of someone who so clearly doesn’t know what to make of herself. This fragmented sense of self is visually indicated from the off, with a striking image of her descending an escalator beside a wall of mirrored strips that dramatically shatter her shifting reflection. That said, Daphne is so far from being unloveable that a bouncer who kicks her out of a club where she’s been misbehaving is enamoured enough to chase her down, ask her out and then decline her knee-jerk offer of casual sex in favour of pursuing something more meaningful. We see, too, that her friends and family are willing – determined even – to put up with her and remain in her life despite her self-destructive attempts to push them all away.
But quite apart from how her fellow characters respond to her, if you’re intellectually smug enough to laugh at her declaring Slavoj Žižek a “doughnut” as she chucks aside a book that she’s been reading just for fun; or at her revelation that she always thinks of Freud when doing coke, (and let’s face it, if you’re watching this film, you probably are) it’s almost difficult not to find her rather charming, spikiness et al. Then there are her magnificent, enviably spontaneous put-downs. “You, sir, are a fabulous cunt,” she says to bouncer David as she staggers away from him.
Daphne also breaks the mould of the gritty, social realist style of cinema it adopts. Rather than focusing on the disenfranchised working class such films are usually designed to champion, Mackie Burns singles out a member of the expanding modern-day precariat as his protagonist. As a well-educated and possibly once fairly well-off 31-year-old (when she remembers), she could serve as a sort of cipher for the instability and disillusionment of the millennial generation, promised a seat at the feast but fast discovering she’s been left with only table scraps.
At the same time, there are hints that she’s merely treading water above a darker underbelly of urban life, which threatens to flood into her world at any moment. For one thing, there’s the homeless man on the corner she knows by name, and for whom she makes up sandwiches at work. Then of course, there’s the lad who panics and stabs the owner of the shop he’s trying to rob in front of her. He tries to rob Daphne too, but tellingly she’s got nothing on her person he deems worth stealing.
Daphne doesn’t give us any easy answers, but the clues to the residual sense of self the title character still possesses are there to hunt for, littered through the story like a trail of breadcrumbs or scrapped leftovers from whatever concoction she’s been devising in the kitchen. On one level, the film might be considered a dark romantic comedy that comes in too late to fully flesh out one affair, and finishes too early to allow the next to blossom. But perhaps surprisingly, Daphne isn’t entirely without ambition: at the restaurant where she works, she asks chef Joe to make her his sous, only to be dismissed completely out of hand (“It’ll ruin your life”) and not for the first time, it seems. She’s clearly interested enough in the idea to spend her free-time testing recipes at home, admittedly only to wrinkle her nose and bin the lot, but the drive is still there. That she doesn’t press the matter further is mostly due to her complicated relationship with the chef himself, a married man with whom she’s clearly mutually in love.
Unsure how to deal with those feelings, she seeks solace in meaningless sex, while holding potential boyfriend David at arms length. Her view of love, as a deluded human attempt to impose meaning on a random universe, is reiterated often enough to sound as though she’s trying to convince herself, and when David calls her bluff on it he unexpectedly exposes real vulnerability – Daphne suddenly flees the scene like a frightened rabbit. Blink and you might miss it, but it’s also her serious decision to quit the job after Joe ‘fesses up his feelings that heralds the beginning of possible change on the horizon.
Meanwhile, she’s also determined to alienate herself from the one reliable figure in her life; having refused chemotherapy for an aggressive cancer, her mum has instead discovered faith and mindfulness, something which naturally frustrates her daughter. Then there’s the fear and self-doubt Daphne is contending with – in particular, her anxiety over not feeling enough about the man she saved to go and visit him. It takes her therapist to suggest that perhaps just doing something is sufficient, and enough of a feeling might well follow after.
Emily Beecham’s skill is in being able to subtly convey all this, without really saying a great deal that’s to the point. Scriptwriter Nico Mensinga’s razor sharp, bone dry dialogue is hilarious but also constantly evasive – it’s down to Beecham to present the character’s pain without ever soliciting our pity. The performance is at once distant and intimate, cold and moving, laugh-out-loud funny and rather tragic. Daphne lives and breathes through Beecham, lingering on in the mind long after the credits finish rolling, so much that you almost expect to meet up with her in your local pub, or maybe on the train back home.
Emily Beecham is backed up by a strong supporting cast as well, with Geraldine James as her surprisingly vivacious, terminally ill mum, Nathaniel Martello-White as a cheerily optimistic David, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Daphne’s jaded boss and soulmate Joe, who similarly can’t quite work out how his life has ended up like this.
The unsung fifth main character in the film is London itself – a suitably messy and complex companion for Daphne, one vividly captured by Scarth. At times, the camera hones in on the squalor of poverty in England’s capital; at others, it hovers in a sky filled with gleaming clouds and glistening skyscrapers reaching out for something more. The film showcases the rich diversity of London with all its teeming masses, as well as the profound loneliness and anonymity of living there. One particularly striking, slightly hazy birdseye view has the cold, unsympathetic eye of CCTV surveillance, with Daphne staggering past faceless crowds and traffic blurs to create a dizzying, disorienting effect.
Refreshingly then, Daphne is a film that actively resists the conventional cinematic trope of turning points and inciting incidents that change a character’s life for good, instead preferring to just let stuff happen. In real life, epiphanies are generally a long time coming, even if we tend to remember them otherwise after the fact.
Like Daphne herself, the audience is required to sift through the mundane paraphernalia of everyday existence to find the meaning underneath, if indeed there is any. It might not fall in line with standard storytelling techniques, but Daphne is a skillfully drawn character study that provides plenty enough meat to chew on for its full 90 minutes, and long thereafter.
Daphne – a film by Peter Mackie Burns
Daphne will be screened at mac on from Friday 13th to Thursday 19th October. For direct information, including showtimes, venue details and online ticket sales, click here.
For more on Daphne, visit www.daphne.film
For more from Flatpack, visit www.flatpackfestival.org.uk
For more from mac, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk