Maggie Gyllenhaal, the esteemed actress from films like Secretary and The Dark Knight and shows like The Deuce, makes her directorial debut with The Lost Daughter. Based on the 2008 novel by Elena Ferrante, its sun-kissed Greek island setting soon clouds over, as Olivia Colman’s character Leda Caruso, a middle-aged languages professor, sits and broods on the beach about times past.
Who is the lost daughter? Early on, Leda refuses to move from her beach spot to allow a rowdy family space to sit. Among them is Dakota Johnson’s mother Nina, whose young girl then runs off. There’s panic, of course, but Leda finds her and takes her back to her family. For reasons best known to herself, however, she keeps the girl’s also lost doll – something that sends the child hysterical.
Colman’s inscrutable performance makes it almost impossible to read Leda. Perhaps she’s the lost daughter. Or has she returned to the scene of a past tragedy? Gyllenhaal’s film, which won Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, reveals its information sparsely. There will be flashbacks, eventually, to her earlier years, when Leda (now played by Jessie Buckley) is a young mother, under pressure.
The male support cast around Colman, Buckley and Johnson is excellent – whether it’s Ed Harris as the kindly caretaker of the property Leda stays in or Paul Mescal, from Normal People, as a student who provides a brief respite for Leda from her dark moods. Gyllenhaal’s own husband Peter Sarsgaard also pops up in the flashbacks.
Yet this is a female-driven experience – one that confidently, subtly explores the inner life of a woman in turmoil. Colman, Buckley, and Johnson are all magnetic on screen, but perhaps it’s Gyllenhaal that deserves the plaudits for her quiet assurance here. There’s tension wrung out of every scene, especially given Nina’s family seem connected to a never-specified criminal underbelly.
If there’s a criticism of The Lost Daughter, it’s that the damp-squib ending doesn’t quite match what’s come before it. But for a film that explores the pressures of womanhood and of being a parent, it’s an exemplary piece of work. As a first film, too, it’s a considerable achievement.
The Lost Daughter is in cinemas from 17 December and on Netflix from 31 December. For more details, click here.