Vivid character study following a cynical and hedonistic Londoner as she goes through an existential crisis
Daphne, the title character of Peter Mackie Burns' spunky first feature, is both a force of nature and a bit of a mess. This contradiction is matched by Emily Beecham’s dynamic performance. The flame-haired actor, who’d be a shoo-in for a Jane Asher biopic, plays Daphne as both sunny and surly; playful and prickly. Even her insults are salty-sweet: when a bouncer charmingly ejects her from a nightclub she exclaims, “You, sir, are a fabulous cunt.”
A 31-year-old chef, Daphne lives alone in her neat little London flat with canary yellow walls, with only her burnt orange snake named Scratch for company, and she likes it that way. She’s a party girl but she seems to have estranged herself from most of her friends. “I’ve given up on people,” she says in the opening scene. So she does most of her drinking alone. One night, she might pull some random and go back to his. On another, she’ll stagger home with a bucket of fried chicken and look up images of Ryan Gosling online. Both scenarios appear similarly fulfilling to her. Or alternatively she might have an evening in with an Indian takeaway and spend the night giggling to herself while reading Slavoj Žižek.
When it comes to love, Daphne’s of the Sigmund Freud school: it’s the psychosis of ordinary people. She expresses her contempt for the emotion a tad too often, however. Doth the lady protest too much?
There’s a breezy looseness to the early section of Daphne as Burns immerses us in the protagonist's ramshackle routine of work and play. She’s like one of the women from Girls gone solo, or perhaps she’s more like Absolutely Fabulous’ Eddie without Patsy by her side.
Initially, Daphne seems satisfied with her hedonistic single lifestyle. But after witnessing a stabbing during a bungled robbery of an all-night corner shop, Daphne’s partying takes on a different flavour. Her freedom begins to look a lot like isolation when she finds she’s no one to talk to about the incident, and wild nights partying begin to resemble self medication for her PTSD.
Pleasingly, this change of mood doesn’t come off as a cautionary tale for single living or some indie Bridget Jones riff suggesting all our hero needs is the love of a good man to set her right. Instead, it feels more like a paean to city living and the communities that form even in the most impersonal of metropolises. It’s notable that the most meaningful interactions Daphne has throughout the film are with strangers: the young man who delivers her takeaways or the young mother who sits beside her on the bus. “I haven't shaved my legs in months,” Daphne confesses to the latter. “I’m wearing a sports bra because I can’t be arsed, so I’ve basically given up on life.”
Beecham dominates virtually every frame, giving a crisp, lived-in performance that’s so winning it keeps us on side, even when Daphne is in narcissistic self-destruct mode. It helps that she’s a wit. “I know, I’m fucking hilarious,” she says at one point and it’s hard to argue with. Much of the time, Burns leaves us to observe Daphne wandering through cinematographer Adam Scarth’s widescreen frames like she’s a foul-mouthed Monica Vitti in an Antonioni movie. It never feels like we’re being asked for our pity, though. And we’re sure Daphne wouldn’t accept it.
As well as a zesty character study, Scotsman Burns has crafted a great London movie. That urban sprawl hasn’t felt so alive on film since around the turn of the millennium, with films like Jamie Traves’ The Low Down or Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland. Like those filmmakers, Burns finds new angles through which to view the city and vivid, less glamourous neighbourhoods in which to set the drama. The result is a film of compassion and soul, with a protagonist at its heart who’s sometimes hard to like but easy to adore.
Daphne screens at EIFF 2017: 23 & 26 Jun, Cineworld, Edinburgh
Daphne is released 29 Sep by Altitude