Fans of The Deuce, HBO’s undersung drama series about the flesh trade in pre-Giuliani New York City, will recall the determination with which Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character pulled herself up from sex worker to adult film director to art-house auteur. A parallel confidence distinguishes Gyllenhaal’s own feature directorial debut, a sensitively observed though sharp-edged adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, The Lost Daughter. The reclusive Italian author’s familiar themes of female relationships, sexuality, motherhood and women’s struggle to carve a professional space outside it are beautifully served in this uncompromising character study, illuminated by performances of jagged brilliance from Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley as her younger self.
Following its Venice competition premiere and a New York Film Festival slot, the film will be released Dec. 17 in theaters by Netflix before bowing Dec. 31 on the streaming platform. Its strong cast and the story’s granular psychological texture will make it a must-see, while putting Gyllenhaal on the map as a neophyte writer-director already graced with maturity and restraint.
The Lost Daughter
A highly accomplished debut.
Pruning some of the novel’s backstory to dive directly into its central character’s rocky interior life, the film opens with the arrival on an unnamed Greek island (shooting took place on Spetses) of Leda (Colman), a divorced British professor of Italian literature in her late 40s. She seems both tantalized and put off by the cheery familiarity of Lyle (Ed Harris), the American caretaker of her spacious holiday rental. It being early in the season, she has the beach virtually to herself, which seems to suit her, though Gyllenhaal deftly plays with tone, making counterintuitive use of Dickon Hinchliffe’s jazzy music over scenes that convey a disquieting edge.
Any semblance of tranquility evaporates in an instant with the arrival of a noisy, vulgar American extended family. Leda’s attention is drawn to a young woman, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who seems not entirely comfortable in her role as a mother. While intently watching the stranger and her daughter, Elena, Leda becomes emotional, her mind traveling back to her own early experience of motherhood, more than 20 years ago. Buckley steps into those memory scenes, and in Leda’s prickly attempts to focus on her work while dealing with the demands for attention of two young girls, she swiftly conveys the ambivalence of a woman who loves her daughters but is anxious about them pulling her away from her own place in the world.
On the island, Leda gets off to an unfriendly start with the family when she declines to move her umbrella and beach chair to make space for them. But Nina’s pregnant sister-in-law, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), comes with a peace offering of birthday cake. When she mentions the child she’s expecting, Leda responds with brittle finality: “Children are a crushing responsibility.”
That borderline hostility toward the traditional expectations of motherhood echoes through the scenes of past and present, particularly as the young Leda attempts to negotiate professional advancement without neglecting her children. Buckley is superb at tracing those bifurcated feelings — the awful fear of domestic confinement blocking her full potential, butting up against shame over not meeting her maternal obligations. That conflict deepens when a charming older literature professor (Peter Sarsgaard) expresses admiration for her work, opening a window to romantic escape.
Gyllenhaal and ace editor Affonso Gonçalves sustain a fluid back-and-forth between Leda’s past and present, where her moments of liberated sensuality clash with feelings that might be remorse or guilt but are seldom so cut and dried in Colman’s enigmatic performance.
When Elena wanders off from the beach to play nearby, the family panics, and Leda endears herself to them by finding the missing girl. But she steals something precious that belongs to the child, making Elena inconsolable and keeping her family stuck in search mode. The impulse behind Leda’s act remains opaque, perhaps perplexing even to herself, though fragments from the past and suggestions of the emotional distance separating her from her grown daughters hint at the tangled reasons for her off-kilter behavior.
Leda’s flirty encounters with Lyle and young Irish seasonal worker Will (Paul Mescal) pull her back to the present. But the strongest connection that forms is with Nina. Johnson does some of her best screen work to date as a woman who appears to be asking herself similar questions to those Leda was asking 20 years earlier — will she be content to have her life defined by motherhood, playing the demure, sexy wife for her obnoxious playboy husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen)?
From their first meeting, she seems bewitched by Leda, as if instinctively identifying her as a kindred spirit. Nina makes her a confidant when she plans a transgression outside her marriage, looking to her for answers that Leda doesn’t have. And Leda clearly feels a tenderness for Nina that seems rooted in recognition.
That makes her continuing deception all the more unsettling, like a kind of sabotage that points to guilt, disgust and self-castigation for her actions of long ago, but also possibly to defiance in Colman’s ballsy characterization, which refuses to soften Leda’s detachment. Even her rage when a bunch of rowdy youths disrupt a movie screening seems disproportionate, indicating a state of percolating anger directed as much at herself as anyone else. When she blurts out “I’m an unnatural mother!” in the middle of a heated confrontation, the admission seems both shocking and strangely freeing.
Surrounding herself with first-rate craft collaborators, Gyllenhaal modulates the mood with great skill, keeping the viewer guessing about which way the story is headed and building genuine suspense out of Leda’s theft and the constant threat of discovery. French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who brought such piercing emotional exploration to her work with director Eliza Hittman on Beach Rats and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, gets even more intimate with her probing close-ups here. There are also echoes of the lush, almost violent color the DP brought to Karim Aïnouz’s criminally underseen Invisible Life.
As material for a first feature, The Lost Daughter is certainly ambitious, with a protagonist defined by her murky interiority and the odd, often unreadable nature of the relationships she forms with everyone she encounters. But Gyllenhaal and her impeccably chosen cast make it a mesmerizingly cinematic psychological drama.