The Lost Daughter probes ambivalent maternal emotions
Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal has given many fine performances, including Secretary, The Kindergarten Teacher, and the daring television series The Deuce for which she produced twenty-five episodes. Now as director of her first film, The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal advances her resume with a courageous, provocative immersion into the psyche of Leda, a middle-aged English professor on a writing holiday in Greece.
Based on Elena Ferrante’s 2008 Italian novel of that title, we watch with Leda as she becomes increasingly mesmerized by Nina, a sexualized young mother whose daughter obsesses over a doll and who mysteriously disappears. The extended, raucous family that converges on the beach Leda frequents becomes involved in the frantic search and the deeply troubling interactions before and after the distressing event.
It prompts Leda’s flashbacks to her own disconcerting actions and feelings as a young, working mother. I’ll say no more to avoid any spoilers, but the fraught connections probe into this woman’s, and by extension women’s, complex psychological, maternal milieu. In that regard, cinematographer Héléne Louvart externalizes that interior landscape into a glorious intersection of beach and pine forest, crowded and isolated spaces. Similarly, the music and sound add layers of implicit commentary.
The always brilliant actress Olivia Colman plays Leda. She has the astonishing ability to convey volumes of conflicting, electrifying emotions with a relentlessly intense gaze, a furtive glance, or a seemingly casual movement. Both Dakota Johnson as Nina and Jessie Buckley as the young Leda give subtle, nuanced performances, with a fine Ed Harris as the apartment caretaker and Peter Sarsgaard as Nina’s husband (Gyllenhaal’s actual husband.)
At this year’s Telluride Film Festival, Gyllenhaal said, “It is critical that Leda can not be crazy, or why make the movie? In fact, I haven’t met any mothers that aren’t ambivalent, if I’m honest about it.” She understands and powerfully captures this awareness. With her impressive directing debut here, I can’t decide if I want to see Gyllenhaal in front of or behind the camera, but I look forward to whatever she chooses. The Lost Daughter screens at cinemas and will be streaming on Netflix beginning December 31.