Synopsis – A woman’s beach vacation takes a dark turn when she begins to confront the troubles of her past.
My Take – Considering her vast filmography which consists of features like Donnie Darko (2001), Secretary (2002), Sherrybaby (2006), World Trade Center (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Crazy Heart (2009), among many others, it only seemed natural that Maggie Gyllenhaal would one day take the plunge into a role behind the camera.
Hence it doesn’t come as a surprise that in her debut feature as a writer and director, especially considering the pull of the narrative, and the assured visual language, she also carries the confidence of a veteran filmmaker who has been in the business for a long time.
Based on the 2006 novel by Elena Ferrante, her film premiered at the 78th Annual Venice Film Festival and deservingly received not only a 4 minute long standing ovation, but also earned Gyllenhaal a Golden Osella for Best Screenplay.
While the obvious themes are never disguised, here, director Gyllenhaal makes the female-centric film a winner by structuring it as a psychological drama with overtones of a thriller and palpable suspense, instead of taking up a straight up dissection approach to its subject of motherhood and grief.
The source material maybe strong, but it’s the writer and director in Gyllenhaal, who along with a terrific performer in the form of Olivia Colman turns this simple coastline vacation drama into a mesmerizing psychological captivator.
The story follows Leda (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged college professor of comparative literature who heads to a small seaside resort village in Greece alone to take some vacation time and work on a book. But just when Leda thinks she has discovered the perfect place in the resort’s sunny beach, her downtime is interrupted by a loud noxious family with little regard for the people around them.
However, among the family members Leda’s attention is drawn to a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter Elena (Athena Martin). As watching Nina and her Elena together unlocks memories for Leda as her younger self (Jessie Buckley), when she was a comparative literature grad student struggling to balance her studies with caring for her two precocious daughters, and how a significant, impulsive experience changed the entire course of her family’s life.
The film toggles back and forth between the two periods of Leda’s life and director Gyllenhaal‘s mosaic approach ultimately forms a clear picture. Working closely with reputed cinematographer Helene Louvart, here, director Gyllenhaal creates a mood that alternates between introspection and dread, and then goes into poking into all the layers of motherhood. The reflections aren’t necessarily positive, and depicts a more complex look at motherhood that isn’t often discussed. The film certainly raises as many questions as it answers, which is why it is so gratifying.
Here, director Gyllenhaal is frank about the hardships of motherhood, and that no one can be prepared for the 24/7 need of a child and the excruciating tiredness of every single day. In fact, the film pretty much says that not every person is cut out for the task, and being a mom is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. A suggestion that certainly dismantles several age-old notions about motherhood.
Much of what we see in the film, from the isolation to the frustration, reinforces the feelings of many mothers. Of course, this has nothing to do with loving one’s kids, but rather maintaining one’s sanity and self-being.
Essentially this is film about unfeeling women, made with a tremendously tender hand. Leda and Nina haven’t simply resigned to the fact that they’re emotionally detached, they’re caught in a crippling cycle of wanting to conform, but also wanting to break free.
The scenes of young Leda trying to reprimand her child who hit her, or take a phone call without interruption, or even ignore her daughter’s pleadings in order to do some work, provide a very clear sense of her struggles with motherhood and her shame about being a bad mother. In Leda, Nina can see her future, and it terrifies her. And in Nina, Leda can see her past. Unlike the orange peel, this chain will likely remain unbroken.
What makes the film work so well is due to director Gyllenhaal’s complete control of the film’s tone. While there are a few moments here and there where the film is perhaps too understated for its own good, and the viewer may struggle to make essential connections, she carries the deliberately ambiguous story line forward with confidence, largely trusting in her cast and in the viewer’s involvement.
The acting is top-notch across board. Olivia Colman without a doubt deserves another Oscar and proves yet again what a fine and versatile actor she is. Leda is a woman of many difficult parts, and Colman fearlessly holds each of them up for scrutiny. She’s aided immeasurably by Jessie Buckley who is simply sensational, and her interactions with her little daughters are equally painful, heartfelt and bitterly realistic. Dakota Johnson as Nina is excellent too, suitably alluring, suggesting there is something just a bit dangerously off about Nina.
In supporting roles, Ed Harris and Peter Sarsgaard are equally effective. In other roles, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jack Farthing, Paul Mescal, OliverJackson-Cohen, Panos Koronis, Alba Rohrwacher, Athena Martin, Nikos Poursanidis, Robyn Elwell and Ellie Blake are also good. On the whole, ‘The Lost Daughter’ is a spectacularly riveting psychological drama that is sharply crafted and brilliantly acted.
Directed – Maggie Gyllenhaal
Rated – R
Run Time – 121 minutes