Runtime: 124 minutes
Writer/Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Actors: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal
By Nicole Ackman
A fair number of actors make the jump to the director’s chair and there are certainly skills they have that contribute to being a talented director, not the least of which is a strong understanding of how to work with actors. But not every actor can successfully direct a film. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, “The Lost Daughter” (2021), shows that she has real promise as a director and a writer. While the film isn’t perfect, she clearly has an eye for visuals and she directs fantastic performances from the whole cast, but especially Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, and Dakota Johnson.
The psychological drama is based on Elena Ferrante’s book of the same name about a professor on a vacation in Greece. Her interactions with another visiting family prompt her to reflect upon her years as a young mother. The film cuts between the past and the present, exploring the darker, more challenging side of motherhood that many would rather ignore.
Leda (Colman) is having a “working holiday” in Greece, but things aren’t turning out exactly as she’d hoped between bugs, moldy fruit in her hotel room, and the noise from the nearby lighthouse. More bothersome is the loud and sprawling family from Queens who have encroached on her space on the beach. While Leda is rather tight-lipped when Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk) asks her questions about her daughters, she is intrigued by Nina (Johnson) and her little girl.
Watching Nina struggle with her daughter brings back memories of Leda’s earlier years, trying to balance mothering her two daughters with her career in academia. While Leda’s modern-day evasiveness hints that she’s hiding something, the friendly employee Will (Paul Mescal) warns her that she should be careful around the other family. However, she soon gets wrapped up in their search for Nina’s daughter’s lost doll, which reveals more about each of the characters than the audience could have been imagined.
Colman never seems to phone in a performance, but Leda might be her best one yet. Her ability to emote through just her eyes adds much to a character who is largely stoic and hiding her feelings. From her tearful scenes to her singing along to the radio in the car, she makes a character who could have been rather off-putting, magnetic. Buckley does a fantastic job as the younger version of Leda, both perfectly portraying the frustration of a mother and brilliantly recreating Colman’s body language to make the transitions between the two of them fluid.
Above all, “The Lost Daughter” is a tale of the sides of motherhood that often get pushed aside. We see three mothers and their very different attitudes towards motherhood from Callie’s overwhelming enthusiasm for her unborn child to Leda’s frustration to Nina’s desperation. The film subtly explores society’s differing expectations for mothers and fathers as we see examples of fathers who walked away from their children with little consequences. It also delves into how difficult Leda found it to balance having a career and having her children and the extreme lengths that frustration drove her to.
It’s a strong directorial debut from Gyllenhaal who shows some nice visual flairs like the shots of Colman swimming in the ocean. She uses a lot of tight shots of the characters that create an almost claustrophobic sense of intimacy that pairs well with the story. She also excellently creates a feeling of dread that permeates the whole film, helped by Dickon Hinchliffe’s score.
“The Lost Daughter” is an uncomfortable story full of unlikable, but fascinating characters. The film struggles to find its footing with the meandering story at times, particularly in finding a rhythm weaving back and forth between the flashbacks. Regardless of any issues, it’s proof that Gyllenhaal has a lot of potential as a director because with her at the helm, Colman, Johnson, and Buckley deliver some of their best performances.
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