Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name, The Lost Daughter is a heady exercise in restraint. Maggie Gyllenhaal, making her seriously impressive debut as writer-director, trusts us to engage with an enigmatic central character whose behaviour is thrilling and appalling at the same time. Thanks to a masterful performance from Olivia Colman, who’s surely coasting to another Oscar nomination, you’ll be pondering her character’s life choices long after the credits roll.
The film begins with Leda Caruso (Colman), a middle-aged academic from Massachusetts via Yorkshire, arriving at her holiday apartment on a remote Greek island. Her exchanges with caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) aren’t rude exactly, but it’s clear she wants him to leave her alone. A few scenes later, Leda’s brittle façade shatters when she’s asked by a large American family if she can take a different spot on the beach. “I understand that,” she replies when Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk) explains that her family just want to sit together, “but I have no desire to move.”
Leda’s defiance impresses beach attendant Will (Paul Mescal), a uni student working his summer job who flirts with Leda after she invites him to dinner. By this point, however, it’s clear Leda is more interested in Nina (Dakota Johnson), a glamorous but frazzled young mother with an overbearing husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) from the family she upset at the beach. Whenever she fixates on Nina’s interactions with her four-year-old daughter Elena, Gyllenhaal cuts to hazy flashback scenes set two decades earlier. Played superbly by Jessie Buckley, the twentysomething Leda is seen struggling when looking after her two little girls, Bianca and Martha, while keeping up with her studies.
These flashbacks are initially a little frustrating because they take us away from present-day Leda – who’s completely fascinating – and occasionally lack in subtlety. When Colman’s Leda glimpses Nina enjoying a furtive kiss with Will, Gyllenhaal cuts to Buckley’s Leda masturbating in a rare moment of peace from her kids. It’s a slightly clumsy way of showing us that older Leda is turned on by the affair she’s witnessing.
Generally, though, Gyllenhaal glides deftly between the two Ledas to create an enthralling portrait of a woman tormented by her competing impulses. Both now and two decades earlier, Leda is frequently overwhelmed and capable of flipping from kind to cutting in an instant. Along the way, Gyllenhaal isn’t afraid to confront the uncomfortable truth that motherhood doesn’t suit everyone. When Callie asks Leda why she’s holidaying alone without her daughters, the question doesn’t just tell us something about Leda, but also something deeper about the way society views women.
Cleverly, Gyllenhaal keeps us guessing about Leda until the very end: why on earth does she steal Elena’s doll, then keep hold of it even when this causes the little girl distress? Few films explore the murky corners of human nature quite as daringly as The Lost Daughter.
- Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
- Starring: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Paul Mescal
- Release date: December 17 (December 31 on Netflix)