The success of playfully impudent shows such as Girls and Fleabag continues to prove that the modern mid-twenties (and beyond) woman is still feeling a bit lost and even a bit p*ssed off. Much like Fleabag, Peter Mackie Burns’ cinematic offering Daphne drops straight into the heart of a frustrated London-based singleton, who attempts to navigate her career, sex and relationships against a bleak city backdrop.
Emily Beecham’s portrayal of the well-educated, abrasive and sexually/emotionally-detached Daphne is inarguably the core characteristic of the film around which everything else oscillates. Thankfully, she does a wholly convincing execution – delivering Daphne’s blunt lines as if a lack of patience and manners is part of her very being. By contrast, Geraldine James expertly plays the contrasting role of Daphne’s mother, battling cancer and newly interested in Buddhism and spirituality.
The contrast between Daphne’s rude rebukes and her mother’s patient warmth is an example of writer Nico Mensinga’s keen, comic writing. The script packs Daphne’s dialogue with sharp and unexpected lines which only succeed in being so darkly comic because of the softer and more emotional characters Mensinga builds around her. Whilst it sometimes feels like a one-man-band, and that the other characters are merely a sounding board for this raw protagonist, it certainly often works in the scripts favour. I only wish this hadn’t come at the price of some of the other characters suffering a lack of ‘fleshing out’.
Alongside Beecham’s performance, the striking imagery is one of Daphne’s richest rewards. Most notably, her shock of orange hair against the ailing backdrop of the city serves as both a visual and metaphorical reminder than Daphne is trying to make her mark – although she perhaps does not know how. Yet, for all her individuality (her pet snake, her career in an edgy restaurant, her refusal to follow any conventionality when it comes to love and relationships) we witness Daphne being swallowed by the towering landscape with aerial shots of her stumbling drunkenly down streets or overpowered by the garish bright blue walls of East-London.
This description wrongly suggests Daphne is, in some way, a character developed to deserve our sympathy – which could not be further from the truth. Daphne is snobbish whilst her own life is falling apart: she discusses Freud whilst snorting cocaine, demands a promotion whilst taking no pride in her work, corrects people’s pronunciation when she can’t even remember the name of the guy she is kissing. She is a hypocrite and so caught up in her own self-image as an emotionless and self-sufficient being, she hurts anyone who tries to form a connection with her.
So why is it tricky to completely loathe her? It must only lie in the way in which Daphne is in some complex way someone everyone can identify with. Daphne is someone we all could become or someone, at some point, we felt we could have been had we not been saved by our human tendency to form emotional relationships with others. Whether it is her mother, her boss or a bouncer who falls for her despite the fact he is throwing out of the club – Daphne seems determined to prevent any of these relationships from forming into something functional that may help her. She is the epitome of someone with multiple barriers firmly and forcibly ‘up’.
Perhaps it is the way Daphne drifts from work, to the corner shop, to parties, or sitting at home with yet another takeaway, that means we ever so slightly align ourselves with her existence. This, paired with how she simultaneously tries to change the monotony of her life without showing any ‘humiliating’ desire for change, is also painfully real. Her actions, from her dry requests for a promotion to her lacklustre attempts to cook fancy dinners, are part of a malady of our modern day: in order to flourish we project that we are emotionally stable and satisfied with our lives. Yet taking any steps towards this reveals a humiliating truth – that we are not fulfilled or stable at all.
This builds a lot of tension around what will eventually change in Daphne’s life and, frustratingly, this doesn’t seem to be anything hugely significant. Daphne is shaken when she witnesses a violent stabbing which is referenced in scatters during her post-trauma counselling, during conversations with random people on the bus or with her disinterested friends. However, the plot seems to shy away from making a statement on how this affects her. A final visit to the victim and his family, where the man’s wife is revealed to ‘pity’ Daphne because she is skinny – hints that perhaps Daphne is more of a victim herself… but I suspect we knew this all along.
Perhaps this lack of character journey is a great way of embodying quite how immovably Daphne is stuck in her ways. Or maybe the film doesn’t want to come to any conclusions on what Daphne is set to become. Her greater acceptance of her mother’s beliefs suggests a softer Daphne, who is open to the people who love her, may be on the horizon. Yet it seems as a film, Daphne rejects an opportunity to draw a needed conclusion on how her mother’s illness, the violent crime she witnesses or the downward spiral of her career affect her life.
Aside from this, Daphne is a sharp, witty and fresh production based around a character that amplifies the reality of our tendency to keep building emotional barriers. It is just a shame that the focus lay so heavily on building Daphne as a character, that the purpose of the plot loses much of its way.