Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut in “The Lost Daughter”, an assured and daring first feature that’s full of surprises both narratively and technically. It’s a worthwhile adaptation of the novella “My Brilliant Friend” by Italian author Elena Ferrante. The book is the first in Ferrante’s four-part series called the Neapolitan Novels and it’s definitely worth seeking out.
Empowered by Gyllenhaal’s keen writing and no-frills direction along with a terrific Olivia Colman lead performance, “The Lost Daughter” offers a subversive examination of motherhood from an angle we rarely (if ever) see in movies. It’s a slippery psychological drama that’s willing and unafraid to challenge cinema’s common perception of women. And it does so with an alarming clarity.
The script is soaked in mystery, beginning in one place before ending somewhere else entirely. The story revolves around an enigmatic 48-year-old woman vacationing in the Greek Isles. What at first feels like a tale of loneliness and loss soon curdles into something dark and sour. And to Gyllenhaal’s credit, she always keeps us guessing while never bending to our expectations.
The sure-footed Colman plays Leda, a literature professor on summer vacation. As she arrives on the picturesque island she’s greeted by Lyle (Ed Harris), the caretaker of the area’s rental properties who lugs her suitcases full of books and clothes to her upstairs apartment. Their exchange provides our first glimpse into Leda’s demeanor. She’s friendly enough but somewhat socially awkward and at times plain-spoken to the point of being off-putting. In this case she wants to be left alone and she has no interest in Lyle’s spiel about the island’s history or how the air conditioner works.
Later Leda makes her way down to the beach to enjoy some peaceful alone time. But any hopes of quiet and solitude are shattered when a large and rambunctious family suddenly arrives. You can see the frustration simmering in Leda’s eyes as the noisy invaders become even harder to digest. But one member of the family catches her attention – a twenty-something mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) struggling to keep her frisky daughter occupied.
Over time Leda’s curiosity turns into a creepy fixation that triggers flashbacks to her own time as an exasperated young mom. In those scenes, Jessie Buckley plays the younger Leda and she shares a startling symbiosis with Coleman. Their performances are both fueled by a similar emotional intensity and are so in-tune with each other that you never doubt you’re seeing the same woman.
Gyllenhaal’s confidence in her storytelling really shows once the flashbacks are introduced. These scenes fluidly weave into and out of the central story, illuminating the main character with an uncomfortable clarity. I won’t dare spoil where the movie goes, but Leda’s story (both past and present) take us down some roads as unpredictable as they are unsettling.
“The Lost Daughter” quickly becomes a movie built around revelation. Gyllenhaal urges her audience to invest in Leda even if we don’t like what’s revealed about her. But that’s part of the film’s allure. It challenges our perceptions and expectations in a brutally frank way. It isn’t worried about us liking Leda. It’s far more concerned with portraying her honestly. So we’re left with a character so sincerely constructed that some will find her impossible to like. Me? I found myself juggling empathy with disdain for Leda which (I believe) is exactly the conflict the movie wants us to have.
While Maggie Gyllenhaal’s shrewd direction and cagey storytelling are real strengths, her visual choices range from sumptuous to suffocating. DP Hélène Louvart’s reliance on intense close-ups can be overpowering and a part of me wishes she had done more visually with the setting. At the same time, her unfussy approach keeps our focus where it needs to be – on the prickly, complicated Leda. She’s the true centerpiece of this achingly melancholy first feature from Gyllenhaal who shows she has a bright and exciting new future ahead of her.