The Lost Daughter
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
Stars: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris
Writer: Maggie Gyllenhaal (adaptation of the novel by Elena Ferrante)
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
In Theaters and on Netflix
It is possible to admire a film like The Lost Daughter — the meticulous vision, the earnest performances, the profound themes — and not like it very much. That’s where I come down on this perplexing movie, the accomplished directorial debut of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and featuring yet another a startling star turn by Olivia Colman.
Filmed on the Greek island of Spetses, yet strangely lacking in shots that exploit the beauty of the place, The Lost Daughter similarly introduces an intriguingly complex character while failing to thoughtfully explore her internal life. An actor the caliber of Colman can, to be sure, evoke volumes with a single distant stare or trembling tear, but there’s a big difference between discerning a character’s state of mind and the specific life experiences that contributed to it.
Colman plays Leda, a Boston college professor spending a few weeks in the Greek Islands, staying in a modest flat by the sea. A clipped phone call home implies she is, if not estranged from her two daughters, at best at emotional arm’s length from them.
Clearly, Leda is a loner, preferring to read Dante’s Paradiso on her beach chair to flirting with the craggy American ex-pat who owns her flat (Ed Harris, who I kept wishing would turn up more often). She does dabble in dinner with a handsome young beach attendant, but it’s clear from their conversation that while she is interested in the lives of others, in a somewhat voyeuristic way, Leda herself is a closed book.
After a day or two of quiet seaside reading, Leda’s idyll is shattered when a boisterous Greek-American family from Queens, New York, swarms onto the sand. She at first clashes with them — coolly refusing to budge from her spot on the beach so the intruders can spread out a bit — but she cannot take her eyes off them, scrupulously studying their Ugly American dynamic. In particular, Leda becomes oddly obsessed with Nina, a young bikini-clad woman who, when not chasing down her wandering little girl, sunbathes grandly on a beach lounge.
One day, that daughter suddenly goes missing on the beach, and the family frantically launches a search and rescue operation. Nina is endlessly grateful when Leda finds the child playing in a remote cove — but unaware that, for reasons known only to Leda, she has stolen the girl’s beloved doll and stashed it in her beach bag.
For much of the movie’s second half, we endure scene after scene of the Queensfolks shaking their heads and telling Leda how sad the little girl is, how inconsolable, how depressed over the loss of her doll. Each time, Leda returns to her flat, opens a cabinet and cuddles the thing. She even drops by a local toy shop to buy it some new clothes.
There’s a macabre thrill to those passages, almost like the moments in a thriller when a character’s bizarre obsessions presage a coming maniacal outburst. But of course, this is no horror flick; whatever tortures Leda is enduring are of the more muted, internal kind.
We get some elaboration on Leda’s abnormal psyche in a series of flashbacks — a parallel narrative, really — that relate the story of Leda’s years as a young, married mom to two rambunctious girls. Played with thoughtful exasperation by Jessie Buckley (of TV’s Fargo), the formative Leda is clearly in over her head as a mother, borderline bipolar as she swings between being giddily playful and somberly studious. Eventually, young Leda abandons her adoring husband and loving (if admittedly annoying) children and takes off for a hot European romance with a sizzlingly sexy linguistics scholar (Peter Sarsgaard).
So, as The Lost Daughter unfolds Leda’s past and present, we learn some key things about our reclusive heroine: She’s congenitally selfish, she’s got a nasty mean streak, and she’s a low-burning psycho. We don’t like her now, we’re repulsed by her history. She seems to leave wreckage wherever she lowers her anchor. It’s true that more than one film has been successfully built around a villain or a clueless narcissist. But those films usually give us the courtesy of a backstory. Here, Leda springs forth fully formed; fully reprehensible.
Working from a novel by Elena Ferrante, writer/director Gyllenhaal lavishes attention on the faces of her characters. I don’t recall so many tight close-ups in a film since Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. But Leone pulled in to let us see his gunmen sweat; to focus on the nervously shifting eyes of men boxed in by their macho hubris. Gyllenhaal’s close frame reveals only Leda’s mask, leaving us to our own devices to try and decipher the reasons she betrays, or lies, or steals.
If anyone can pull that off, it’s Colman. But Gyllenhaal’s script — and perhaps the novel that inspired it — deprives Colman of the “tell” that must necessarily accompany “show.” It has become cliché to say Colman (The Favorite, The Crown) gives a splendid performance, and if her aim here is to present us with Leda as an inscrutable bundle of exposed, but largely dead, nerves, then I’d say mission accomplished.
An ambiguous movie from its meandering start to its uncertain end, The Lost Daughter seems to be missing the scenes where we get to understand the foibles of a flawed central character. That may be the intent of everyone involved, but the result leaves us lost, as well.
Featured image: Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter (Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix © 2021)
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