The Lost Daughter marks acclaimed actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as a writer and director. But the psychological drama unfolds in such a confident and mesmerising fashion that you wouldn’t know it.
An adaptation of Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel of the same name, The Lost Daughter stars Olivia Colman as Leda Caruso, a teacher from England on a summer holiday in Greece. After visiting a local beach, Leda soon becomes obsessed with American vacationer Nina (Dakota Johnson), her young daughter, and their rather brutish family. This provokes her to start exploring her own memories of her early years as a mother, during which time she’s portrayed by Jessie Buckley.
Rather than aggressively trying to hook her audience in a sensationalist manner, Gyllenhaal takes a much more restrained and intriguing approach to the story. Not only is there an assuredness to Gyllenhaal’s storytelling, she also examines the characters in an empathetic but complex fashion, while also making sure that the framing of the camera is gorgeous to look at. The result of this is that, the longer that The Lost Daughter goes on, the more unsettling and refreshingly unpredictable it becomes.
The director gives her collaborators plenty of space to work their own movie magic, too. Cinematographer Helene Louvart’s beautiful compositions make the Greek island of Spetses seem idyllic. But, beneath the glistening sun and pristine beaches and apartments, Louvart and Gyllenhaal together initially tease and then seamlessly build a haunting feeling that soon begins to permeate the entire film. They’re assisted in this pursuit by Dickon Hinchliffe’s dreamlike score that only adds to The Lost Daughter’s searing atmosphere.
Unsurprisingly, Gyllenhaal ekes out terrific performances from everyone involved. Academy Award-winner Colman goes from being tender, sweet and vulnerable to volatile, hysterical and erratic without ever missing a beat. It’s a performance of such virtuosity that, not only is Colman destined for at least another Oscar nomination, but her status as one of the most sought-after and talented actors working today is more firmly secured.
Just as impressive is Buckley, who despite a scarcity of scenes, lays the foundation for the character of Leda that Colman is then able to expand upon. It speaks volumes of Buckley’s performance that, despite Colman’s stunning portrayal, The Lost Daughter never loses any steam when it delves into her flashbacks and she becomes the central figure.
At the same time, Johnson holds her own as the lost but tough Nina, while the always delightful Ed Harris lights up the screen as the likeable landlord Lyle. There are also strong turns from Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal and, in particular, Dagmara Dominczyk, who comes the closest to wrestling attention away from Colman.
The Lost Daughter’s slow-burner approach means that it won’t be for everyone. It challenges its viewers to see themselves in and invest in its undeniably problematic characters, while the McGuffin at the heart of the plot could be construed as overly silly. Those of you who connect with The Lost Daughter, though, will almost certainly find it heartbreaking.
In fact, it does such a superb job of exploring motherhood, alienation and depression in a thought-provoking and original manner that you can’t help but want it to dive into these themes more. Especially since its rather rushed and convoluted conclusion means that The Lost Daughter doesn’t end on the high that it deserves.
Despite this stumble, the film still establishes Gyllenhaal as a fearless and powerful filmmaker, whose skills behind the camera clearly rival her talent in front of it.
The Lost Daughter will release on Netflix on Friday