Producers: Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Talie Kleinhendler, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Charles Dorfman Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal Screenplay: Maggie Gyllenhaal Cast: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jack Farthing, Robyn Elwell, Ellie Blake, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Panos Koronis, Alexandra Mylonas, Alba Rohrwacher, Nikos Poursanidis and Athena Martin Distributor: Netflix
Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s writing-directing debut, an adaptation of pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, is a dark, brooding tale of motherhood viewed without sentiment, and with a sensibility that makes it feel curiously foreign despite being in English. It could be described as a women’s picture—not, however, because it’s a weepie of the sort Hollywood studios once aimed at female audiences, but because it focuses on relationships among women, particularly mothers and daughters, in which the male characters are little more than background figures, barely sketched in. Whether it’s more probing or mystifying is a matter of debate.
What nearly everyone will agree on is the superb lead performance by Olivia Coleman. She’s Leda Caruso, a Harvard professor of comparative literature. An opening shot that shows her collapsing on a beach provides a hint of how the story ends (a cliché all too common in today’s films), but the chronology immediately reverts to her arrival for what she calls a working vacation on the fictional Greek island of Kyopeli (the shoot actually occurred on Spetses). After being shown to her rented apartment—where the foghorn of a nearby lighthouse forecasts trouble ahead—by the expatriate American caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris), who shows an immediate interest in her, she spends much of her time on the beach, reading and writing, or walking about the island on her own.
Leda’s attitude makes it fairly clear that she prefers to be left alone, and when she’s approached by Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk), the prodigiously pregnant matriarch of a large, loud American family that’s invaded the beach, and asked to move her umbrella and chair the make way for the clan’s celebration, she brusquely refuses. Though the women apologize to each other a bit later, there’s clearly a residual hostility simmering between Leda and the family.
She, meanwhile, is fascinated by Nina (Dakota Johnson), Callie’s beautiful sister-in-law, whose husband Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a virile, vaguely thuggish and often absent fellow. Leda is especially intrigued by Nina’s relationship with her young daughter Elena (Athena Martin), which bounces abruptly from affection to exasperation. It triggers recollections of the difficulties she (played in flashbacks by Jessie Buckley) had trying to raise her own daughters Bianca (Robyn Elwell) and Martha (Ellie Blake) while completing work on her degree and starting an academic career, without much support from either her mentor (Alexandros Mylonas) or her husband (Jack Farthing). In particular she recalls how an encounter with two hikers (Alba Rohrwacher and Nikos Poursanidis), as well as a fling with a charismatic colleague (Peter Sarsgaard), led her to make a decision that has left her nursing both guilt and shame.
Leda glimpses much of her own youthful self in Nina, not only in her attitude toward Elena but in Nina’s relationship with Will (Paul Mescal), the ingratiating beach bartender, which causes her long-suppressed emotions to flare up in bouts of anxiety and rage. Even more disconcerting is what follows when Elena disappears, to the horror of her family. Leda proves a heroine who finds and returns the child, but she also commits an act that causes the family grief—and takes it to cruel lengths, explaining the scene with which the film began.
“The Lost Daughter”—a title whose multiple meanings are gradually revealed—is intriguing for the mystery it maintains about Leda’s turmoil, largely through the complexity of the performances by Coleman and Buckley. But in the end the effort to maintain the mysteriousness takes its toll. The plot employs the symbolism of dolls as a means to link the present-day narrative with the flashbacks, and the device proves clumsy; one scene in particular, involving Leda, Lyle and a doll, is a particular oddity, suggesting a degree of obtuseness and carelessness that’s simply baffling. The choices Leda makes at the close, moreover, strain credulity to the breaking point. And what’s ultimately revealed about her present relationship with her own daughters obscures the matter further.
Apart from the two sides of Leda represented by Coleman and Buckley, the characterizations are flimsy. Johnson’s Nina is the most nuanced of them, but even in that case the depiction remains on the surface. It’s especially regrettable that good actors like Harris and Sarsgaard are stuck with one-dimensional roles, but they do their best with them. The craft team—cinematographer Hélène Louvart, production designer Inbal Weinberg, costume designer Edward K. Gibbon and editor Affonso Gonçalves—cultivate a rather scruffy look and ragged tempo throughout; certainly the natural beauty of the Aegean has been captured more effusively elsewhere. Dickon Hinchliffe’s spare score doesn’t emphasize local color either.
Ferrante’s books have always been rather divisive, splitting readers into distinct camps. One suspects that “The Lost Daughter” will be equally so.