Maggie Gyllenhaal's striking debut.
Sundry pleasures turn ghastly in The Lost Daughter: still life-worthy fruit rots imperceptibly in its bowl; an open window carrying the sounds of the shore delivers a pussing cicada; an ejected pinecone pricks the flesh. The Mediterranean sky, it seems, is falling—at least from where Leda (Olivia Colman) stands. She soldiers on, only mildly curious at these benign harbingers of a larger interruption yet to come.
Leda is a 48-year-old professor of comparative literature who has freshly arrived in Greece for a solo vacation—and her cinematic forebears might have included other women on a European romp, like those found in The Green Ray, Unrelated, or Summertime, had the film not been based on a novel by Elena Ferrante. The pseudonymous Italian author, best known for her “Neapolitan Novels,” has a predilection for tackling the existent tensions of motherhood, and does so with jagged tension and frisson of suspense. Ferrante has in the past described her style as “a cold surface and, visible underneath it, a magma of unbearable heat,” and Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her directorial debut and working from her own screenplay, transposes this reticent disquietude with wild accuracy and zero sentimentality. Rife with medium-closeups and a juddering camera, The Lost Daughter’s visual sense may leave some viewers feeling stiffed, thirsty for more footage of what’s doubtless a gorgeous locale, but such scenic indulgence would defy Gyllenhall’s prerogative: to ground us in Leda’s perspective, a necessarily strained vantage point. We, and Leda, are not here to gaze outward, but to look within.
Though she does experience moments of plaintive isolation, Leda doesn’t seem particularly in need of companionship, preferring four luggagefulls of books to the company of Ed Harris’s porter. We get a sense of her self-assurance, that she knows what she wants and deserves, which leads to her refusal to move further down the shore at the request of some brash American tourists. Arriving in droves, they’ve begun to commandeer the seaside, and it doesn’t take long to realize the clan from Queens is ‘connected,’ delicately infusing a sense of peril when Leda starts to platonically fixate on one of them: a younger mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson, at first unrecognizable with calligraphic liner and witchy hair) and her toddler-aged daughter. Then, Leda steals the child’s doll—one of a few symbols and motifs from the book that Gyllenhaal aims to place in the film without thwacking into the ground.
The young mother and daughter have the effect of bruising Lena’s world, and her gaping always anticipates a flashback to her ragged younger-self. Played by Jessie Buckley, 20-something-year-old Leda buoys from coarse to tender while caring for her two young daughters and translating Yeats into italian— a struggle that is less concerned with marital strife and gender-based responsibilities (though her husband, also an intellectual, is of little help), than it is with her own acute ambivalence. The psychological jaunts into the past help us understand her empathetic and even at times remorseful stance with the glazed-over Nina, similarly yoked to a reluctant burden.
Essentially a character study,The Lost Daughter unfolds like a thriller and perforates conceptions of conventional motherhood.In broadcasting an unpopular, and little spoken, truth about maternal instincts, the movie ruffles feathers even as it offers comfort, a most prickly sort of solace—the success of which is owed to Colman, whose recognition and emergence as one of today’s finest actors, regardless of genre or medium, has been one of the great rewards of recent movie/television viewing. Here, her comedic sensibility, such as when she lets out a lone random welp, pierces the veneer of dramatic austerity and prevents the film from blanching into sobriety. Similarly, when she delivers a line like “children are a crushing responsibility,” it plays like a mic drop—as likely to provoke slack jaws as it is laughter, though almost certainly the kind cackled in knowing, rueful recognition.