Daphne is a film about how when one poor person stabs another poor person, the true victim is a middle-class professional. More specifically, after witnessing a stabbing in a corner shop, our protagonist Daphne (Emily Beecham) embarks on a tortuous journey of self-discovery – or more accurately, a journey to see if she has a self that is worth discovering.
Turning urban pain into an occasion for bourgeois ennui isn’t exactly new, but this film confirms every crude stereotype of Southern metropolitan hubris you can imagine.
Daphne is a sous chef who has ‘given up on people’. Why exactly is never clear, and the writers don’t seem that concerned either, so long as we get on board with Daphne as someone hip to her own anomie. Trouble is, this is quite hard to do. Whether she’s stating sixth form level philosophical bon mots that we’re supposed to take as profound or treating those around her like pieces of emotional and sexual gym equipment, there isn’t much more to Daphne than a high cheek boned, pseudo-intellectual tantrum.
Which sort of goes to the narcissistic heart of the matter. In his admirable intention to craft a viable female antihero, director Peter Mackie Burns has actually produced a more insidious misogyny, in which Daphne fulfils all the criteria of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl bar one – she needs to save herself rather than a bloke. Devoid of Fleabag’s wit and falling short of Girls’ social commentary, Daphne offers a teenage boy’s idea of independent womanhood, a weird mashup of Bridgette Jones and Dostoevsky For Dummies.
The film’s cackhandedness in this regard is most glaring when it tries to link Daphne’s first world problems to broader socio-economic issues. At one point she even wakes up to a radio programme on the rise of free market economics – not exactly subtle, guys. Gorgeous shots of London’s buzzing backstreet glamour only serve to aestheticize the gross self-regard that underpins this same adolescent love of the capital.
Beechman, meanwhile, gives a cracking performance in a role generally made out of cardboard. That the camera rarely leaves her face is a testament to the film’s attempt to make despair as photogenic as possible.
Daphne indeed suggests that structural inequalities are best aired, even best resolved, within the subjective experiences of those who benefit the most from a system already tilted in their favour.
She might turn her back when the film’s stabbing occurs, but Daphne may as well look on and enjoy the frisson, because this desperately smarmy tale is existential slumming at its worst. Tellingly, the original title was Daphne’s Inferno.
Hell for these filmmakers isn’t just other people – it’s the grimy reality of people without money.