There is a reason why British actress Olivia Colman, at the age of 47, is hitting her prime right now. Ever since she won an Best Actress Oscar for her role as England’s forlornly ditzy and rabbit-adoring Queen Anne in The Favourite, she’s become an English version of Meryl Streep. There seems to be nothing she can’t do. Whether it’s her unusual role as the daughter of a dementia sufferer played by the esteemed Anthony Hopkins in last year’s The Father, which led to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod or her spot-on Emmy-winning portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II on TV’s The Crown. Then there is her horridly demeaning godmother and eventual stepmother of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character on Fleabag, which earned Colman a supporting spot on the 2019 Emmy ballot.
All of this shows how smart and cagy actress Maggie Gyllenhaal was to recruit Colman as her star attraction in her directorial and screenplay debut, The Lost Daughter, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel that digs deep into the joy, guilt, agony and pain of motherhood. At this moment, there are few leading lady besides Colman who knows how to act spiteful, vengeful and self-centered on screen while still allowing audiences to sympathize with her.
At the center of the complicated story that unfolds on a Grecian island, is Colman’s Leda, a 48-year-old British academic taking a working holiday, as she calls it. She and the caretaker whose property she is renting (Ed Harris, who I have dubbed he sexiest bald-headed actor alive – sorry, Stanley Tucci) helps her with luggage filled with heavy books and shows a bit of interest in her. Initially, Leda – named for the poem WB Yeats poem Leda and the Swan – has the beach blissfully all to herself. But soon it is invaded with a large, noisy American clan. One of the celebrants asks Leda to move, which makes her defensive. But the 40-ish woman, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk ), brings a piece of her birthday cake as a peace offering and discusses her own pregnancy. She seems eager to hear some motherly advice from Leda divulges that she has two daughters, 23 and 25, Suddenly, she blurts out that “children are a crushing responsibility.” That is pretty much the theme of the film.
We then get to see Leda as a young struggling mother, a role neatly inhabited by Jessie Buckley, at the time when she is building a reputation as an admired academic in the field of Italian literature. Her husband doesn’t seem to do much parenting. In fact, he takes little notice that she is unraveling right in front of him over the pressure of two high-strung toddlers who often test her patience and more. When Leda gets to go to present her work at a symposium, she allows herself to succumb to the advances of a fellow academic (Peter Sarsgaard aka Gyllenhall’s husband and the father of her two daughters).
In real time, we witness Leda eyeing Nina (a chilly Dakota Johnson), Callie’s sister-in-law and the mother of a rambunctious young daughter named Elena. One of the most memorable images in the film is when the young girl cruelly bites and chews the face of Nani, her beloved baby doll. That toy will be the key to how we end up seeing the elder Leda while she eventually gets her comeuppance. Gyllenhaal keeps us on edge right until the end. But her true gift is in the way she trusts her actors and allowing Colman and Buckley’s performances perfectly echo each other.