Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a quietly astonishing directorial debut with The Lost Daughter, a crafty treatise on maternal ambivalence that delivers an unsettling emotional wallop.
Olivia Colman plays Leda, a professor on sabbatical who has decided to spend time in Greece while working on her next book. As a woman of a certain age, abroad and alone in the world, Leda is invisible in ways that are equally unjust and tantalizing: When she’s greeted by Lyle, a handsome property manager played by Ed Harris, viewers might be forgiven for wondering if a rom-com be afoot. How Leda Got Her Groove Back, anyone?
Luckily, The Lost Daughter is up to something far more intriguing. Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s novel, what initially promises to be a toothsome piece of escapism turns into a tense and enigmatic psychological thriller, larded with the same themes that preoccupied Ferrante in her My Brilliant Friend cycle: motherhood, allyship, regret, and the often-ruthless power of the female gaze.
In this case, the tractor-beam of fascination, resentment, and attraction belongs to Leda, who becomes quietly obsessed with Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mom on vacation with her noisily quarrelsome extended family. Irritated at having her splendid isolation interrupted, Leda soon becomes entranced by the lithe creature alternately doting on and ignoring her toddler daughter. Soon, Leda is transported back in time, when she tried in vain to balance the demands of a family and a burgeoning academic career. Past and present eventually collide in The Lost Daughter, as Leda and Nina give in to their mutually magnetic pull, with disquietingly explosive results.
It’s been said that cinema’s foundation is built upon men looking at beautiful women: Here, Gyllenhaal smartly turns the tables, inviting the audience to see Nina through Leda’s eyes, at a distance, the better to project a narrative all our own. Thrust into the traditional role of object — albeit with an intelligent, even subversive twist — Johnson delivers what might be the most accomplished performance of her career, using her face, body, costumes, and makeup to project everything she can’t say (at least at first).
Colman is shattering as Leda, who is spikily self-protective and deeply vulnerable: A scene in which she refuses to cede her space on the beach to Nina’s family is a chamber piece of passive-aggressive subtext. The forces that have made her who she is come into clearer focus in The Lost Daughter’s frequent flashbacks in which Jessie Buckley plays the young Leda with seamless verisimilitude.
The plotworks of The Lost Daughter become awkwardly obvious as the story reaches its weird, unsettling climax; what should be a function of Highsmith-ian misdirection instead feels labored and forced. Those hiccups notwithstanding, Gyllenhaal keeps this taut, intriguingly shifting story on an appropriately uneven keel, as events take their inevitable yet still-shocking course. She has also enlisted some fine supporting actors to flesh out the narrative, including Paul Mescal, Peter Sarsgaard, and Jack Farthing. But Gyllenhaal’s eyes are firmly on the women in The Lost Daughter, which benefits immensely from the filmmaker’s own gaze — alert, sensitive, and impressively uncompromising.