With “The Lost Daughter,” director Maggie Gyllenhaal wears melancholy like a second skin. One of her generation’s most underrated actors, she moves through her films with a flicker of otherworldly woe; an organic ability that has routinely been informing the highlights of her filmography to date, from the erotically manic “Secretary” to the gritty “Sherrybaby,” and more recently, the wistful thriller, “The Kindergarten Teacher.” In other words, Gyllenhaal has always possessed an auteurial sway over the films she was in, putting on them her signature ethereal stamp.
So it’s no surprise that “The Lost Daughter,” Gyllenhaal’s first film as a writer-director, carries that same mystic imprint through and through even though she doesn’t star in it. It’s a mature and unapologetic woman’s picture; the kind that’s been in short supply and dearly missed; the kind that both demonstrates the effortless fluency in which Gyllenhaal already speaks the language of cinema and signals a bright filmmaking future for the actor-turned-director that we just might compare to the career of Mia Hansen-Løve one day. Adapting the pseudonymous “My Brilliant Friend” author Elena Ferrante’s titular novel with awe-inspiring finesse and self-assurance for a first-timer, Gyllenhaal puts forth something profound, specific, and even bone-deep about womanhood, motherhood, and all the unspoken horrors and repressed regrets that surround these identities.
Cuddled by renowned DP Hélène Louvart’s characteristically signature cinematography of textured compositions and sensually grainy close-ups, think of “Beach Rats” and “Invisible Life,” the suspense-filled affair starts with a mysterious framing device in the nighttime. We follow a woman who stumbles her way towards a beach and collapses on it. But before we could catch up with who she is, the time rewinds to weeks ago, to her arrival at a coastal town in Greece. Portrayed by Olivia Colman in a gutting performance of emotional complexity—equal parts genial and delectably disagreeable—she is Leda, a literature professor vacationing solo for a few luxuriously idle weeks. Checking in to her beachy, quaintly appointed apartment with the help of the kindly, newsie-capped property manager Lyle (Ed Harris, magnetic as ever with a softened charisma and dance moves to boot), Leda sets off for the beach the very next day. It’s a small and peaceful stretch on which much of the key “The Lost Daughter” scenes unfold—unglamorous and pebbly, but enough for Leda to relax into her extended solitude. Nearby, Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Irish student Toni mischievously hovers to wait on Leda: Does she need an ice pop? How about a cold beverage?
But Leda’s day goes from tranquil to earsplitting fast with the entrance of a crowded, garishly loud family determined to hog the serene slice Leda had claimed for herself. A tense dispute percolates fast after Leda snappily refuses to move upon the equally curt request of Callie (Dagmara Domincyzk, grippingly capricious), a pregnant member of the seemingly patriarchal clan celebrating her birthday. This is the first instance through which Gyllenhaal lets us see Leda’s prickly edge, a fickle facet of her character Colman navigates with astonishing intricacy, even a daring dose of relatable unlikability. Once triggered, this quality never leaves Leda, even after the tensions seemingly die off between her and the disorderly family. It just bides its time in the languid depths of a pensive summer to surface at a time Gyllenhaal’s patient, the near-flawless script, decides to unleash it again with purpose.
“The Lost Daughter” feels quietly volatile from this point on, especially when Leda becomes obsessed with a striking member of the family, Nina (Dakota Johnson, with an evocative, almost reptilian presence), and her young daughter Elena. Becoming the hero of a panicky day on the beach once she helps find an abruptly missing Elena, Leda inexplicably holds onto the kid’s doll in secret, despite being acutely aware of the suffering the missing toy has been causing the child. Through both this toy and her compulsive observing of Nina in the weeks that follow, Leda’s past memories as a struggling mother of two percolates, introducing us to a new movie within “The Lost Daughter”—one that is told in exceptionally well-parsed flashbacks, starring a phenomenal Jessie Buckley as the young Leda.
With her seasoned editor Affonso Gonçalves (a regular Todd Haynes collaborator), Gyllenhaal finds a captivating rhythm within “The Lost Daughter,” toggling between the older Leda’s distressing days in Greece and her younger self’s life as a brilliant academic and exhausted parent. Slowly, she constructs a seductive, scheming, and expressive ecosystem of secrets and grudges in the present-day segments, peppering them with Leda’s aching memories of walking out on her family with professional ambitions and a new romantic interest. Colman and Buckley form a phenomenal, almost miraculous double-edged sword throughout this unpredictable dance, convincingly representing the different shades of the same woman, anchored by varying doses of egotism, remorse, and intellectual hunger. Loyal to the essence of the source material, Gyllenhaal wisely honors the efforts of both actors with her feminist touch—while she (thankfully) never makes a concerted effort to make Leda seem likable, she doesn’t judge her with any traditional moral codes either. Instead, she respects Leda’s need for freedom, gifting the viewer a refreshingly multifarious and impulsive female character we don’t always like, but fall in love with all the same.
In that regard, it’s simply a thrill to follow Leda from Gyllenhaal’s lens as she flirts with the men in her radar—Louvart’s eye for close-ups and human skin is as erotically suggestive as ever—and surreally toys with the doll she shamefully hides: cleaning it, dressing it, meddling with it until the lump of plastic turns into something of a possessed conduit fit for a sinister horror movie. And when she meditatively concludes the tragic tale with a few drops of blood and a generous spray of salty Mediterranean breeze, “The Lost Daughter” leaves you haunted, shaken, and crushingly scarred like only the best of films are capable of doing. [A]