Maggie Gyllenhaal's auspicious directorial debut, "The Lost Daughter," which she adapted from Elena Ferrante's novel, is both bold and fraught, not unlike Leda (Olivia Colman), its protagonist.
A professor of comparative and Italian literature, Leda has arrived on a Greek island to have a "working" vacation. Checking into an apartment managed by Lyle (Ed Harris), she spends her days mostly on the beach, which is where she first sees Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter, Elena. When Nina's sister Callie (Dagmara Domincyzk) asks Leda to move to another location so their family can celebrate a birthday together, Leda politely, but firmly, refuses. As Leda is leaving, she and Callie make peace — or least form a truce. Leda later learns from Will (Paul Mescal of "Normal People"), an employee at the beach, that Nina and Callie's family are not to be challenged.
"The Lost Daughter" shows Leda trying to enjoy her vacation, but she is constantly triggered to thoughts of her own children. In these flashbacks, Leda is played by Jessie Buckley and her daughters are Bianca (Robyn Elwell) and Martha (Ellie Mae Blake). Gyllenhaal provides many possible clues about what transpired in the past to keep viewers guessing and engaged.
But it is an early sequence where Elena go missing — and Leda finds her — that sets the present-day story in motion. When Leda and Nina meet, they are both intrigued by one another, and as they continue to meet, sometimes secretly, they find that they share many qualities. One thing that bonds them is Elena's missing doll, which is causing Nina grief with her daughter. Leda, it is revealed, has the doll and is keeping it hidden in her apartment.
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Leda's questionable behavior is fascinating, and Colman makes her absolutely captivating. Gyllenhaal closes in tight on Colman's face so viewers can scrutinize her and try to understand what she is thinking. Most of the people she interacts with can't or won't read her signals. Lyle, for instance, tries to pick her up in the bar/restaurant where she is having dinner, and he cannot or will not take the clear hints that she is sending him to leave her alone. She also has a series of unsettling episodes where she gets hit by an object, goes pale, or gets dizzy, as if something has forced her to lose her sense of self momentarily. They certainly add to the enigmatic quality of her character and Colman makes her compelling.
"The Lost Daughter" toggles back and forth between the two periods of Leda's life and Gyllenhaal's mosaic approach ultimately forms a clear picture. When Leda tells the pregnant Callie that children are a "crushing responsibility," there are scenes of a dispirited young Leda trying (and failing) to control Bianca and Martha. Young Leda later admits that she is scared she cannot take care of her daughters, and viewers are likely to share her fear — or fear for her daughters. The scenes of young Leda trying to reprimand her child who hit her, or take a phone call without interruption, or even ignore her daughter's pleadings in order to do some work, provide a very clear sense of her struggles with motherhood and her shame about being a "bad" mother.
Nina's experiences echo Leda's as Elena is always crying or clinging to her. There is an empathy and frustration these two women share as well as their own selfish need for "alone time." This is a tricky topic to portray, and Gyllenhaal features scenes of each woman pursuing extramarital affairs. Young Leda gets involved with Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard, Gyllenhaal's real life husband) while Nina takes up with Will. What the film is saying about women who want children and a sense of guilt or freedom is left for viewers to parse.
"The Lost Daughter" certainly raises as many questions as it answers, which is why it is so gratifying. Watching the adult Leda behave the way she does — setting boundaries and courting trouble at the same time — reveals her character. A scene of Leda challenging Nina's powerful husband Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) when she wants to get in her car — only to realize she parked somewhere else shows she can be wrong about things. Likewise, when a group of young men are disruptive at a cinema, Leda becomes incensed as her threats are ignored. Her anger may be righteous, but again, she is more humiliated than satisfied.
The film's best scenes are the exchanges Leda has with Nina, who admires this stranger and becomes her confidante. Leda confesses something shocking from her past to Nina, but "The Lost Daughter" builds its tension in the unlikely friendship that develops between these two women. Will Nina learn that Leda has her daughter's missing doll, and how will she react if or when she does?
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Gyllenhaal is best at creating a discomfiting mood in her psychological investigation of motherhood. However, a scene where Lyle comes with an octopus and cooks Leda dinner (with the stolen doll in plain sight) crackles, even if Gyllenhaal can't resist cutting to shots of the doll. Yet the filmmaker's decision to open the film with a scene that happens in the final moments is perhaps a mistake. Even if the episode is initially ambiguous, the film as a whole could have been even more powerful without the foreshadowing.
Colman is magnificent as Leda, a woman whose tough exterior masks an equally hard interior. Colman does not strive to make Leda likable which may be exactly why viewers root for her. As the young Leda, Jessie Buckley captures the exasperation Leda feels having to always be there for her kids, and the exhilaration she experiences without them. It is a high-wire act of a performance and she balances it brilliantly. In support, Dakota Johnson is suitably alluring, suggesting there is something just a bit dangerous or off about Nina.
Gyllenhaal's film is mysterious too. It sinks its hooks into viewers and does not let go.
"The Lost Daughter" is now streaming on Netflix. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.
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