Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Stars: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson
We’re all flawed people, and often it’s those malformed, knotty or unkempt portions of ourselves that define our individuality, for better and for worse. Maggie Gyllenhaal has made a 20 year career out of portraying a variety of knotty, unkempt, fallible women, with career highlights ranging from Secretary and The Kindergarten Teacher to HBO’s The Deuce. Now she mutates her journey, moving behind the camera with her directorial debut The Lost Daughter, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante.
Leda (Olivia Colman – getting the roles she deserves following Oscar glory) is a professor in her late ’40s holidaying in Greece. Desiring peace but frequently finding her quiet time impinged upon by the rowdiness or felicitations of other holidaymakers and staff, Leda’s vacation becomes a miasma of bitterness, resentment and as the unwelcome memories of her time as a young mother come flooding back (her flashback self personified by Jessie Buckley).
Such painful recollections are triggered by her increasing involvement in the life of a young woman named Nina (Dakota Johnson). Having observed her for a number of days, Leda becomes involved when Nina’s daughter Elena (Athena Martin Anderson) goes missing. Leda finds the girl, entering the good graces of those she had previously scorned, but the encounter opens up avenues of memory that cause Leda to spiral. In the process we are afforded a window into her past, and a portrait unfolds of a woman unaccustomed to feeling or expressing love. The Lost Daughter burrows into this often unspoken taboo.
While emotionally distant men are ten-a-penny in cinema – irrespective of the era – women are rarely afforded the latitude for the same or similar ills. Gyllenhaal channels her experience taking on such complex women into this gift of a role for both Colman and Buckley. Their Leda is a most relatable, knowable monster. She has a dark, sometimes rude sense of humour. She flirts haphazardly with local fisherman and handyman Lyle (Ed Harris) and has a history of promiscuity. And she is also by her own admission selfish, mean and cruel. Time spent will reveal to what extent.
The humdrum relatability of many of the things that Leda finds irritating engenders our empathy (bad behaviour in a cinema particularly!). We find ourselves on her side at times when, it would seem, we should stand in judgement of her. When she steals a valued doll, the film mines the discovery of her crime for an enduring degree of suspense. In spite of our best instincts, we want Leda to get away with it. Here Gyllenhaal presents us the contradictory natures we all wrestle with.
There are occasions when the emotional subtext of the piece is passed to us a little bluntly (the discovery of rotten fruit plain as day on a table in Leda’s villa), but on the whole this is an admirably muted and coolly observational piece of work. Though, unlike it’s subject, it is not so distant. Gyllenhaal often employs handheld camerawork and gets in tight with her actors. She follows them closely or ducks into their field of vision, pushing us into their personal space. This feeling of being too close creates a subtle pressure. A kind of fleeting discomfort that keeps us right there in the moment.
Buckley takes a considerable share of the responsibility in bringing this all to life. She and Colman create a seamlessly blended amalgamation of a person splintered in two by time. I would imagine the actors worked closely together to create something so innately conjoined, despite never once sharing a scene. It is Colman, however, who carries the piece to it’s muted emotional crescendo; an admission of the kind we’re rarely encouraged to make.