The Lost Daughter (streaming on Netflix) is the story of a woman so withdrawn into herself that she may not even be able to explain why she behaves the way she does. The movie does not attempt to clarify, it only shows what she does through an intimate character study. Even flashbacks of her in her younger days don’t answer all of the questions viewers will likely have. This is not a complaint, merely an observation. Sometimes, life doesn’t provide answers. In the end, it seems entirely probable that Leda would be incapable of explaining why she feels the way she does or makes the decisions she does. The Lost Daughter does not look away from her, nor does it excuse her. The result is a tremendously compelling writing/directing debut, featuring one of the best performances of 2021.
Leda is on vacation in Greece. A professor, she spends her days writing on the beach. Also summering there is a large extended family, including a young woman with her daughter. Seeing them together triggers something in Leda that forces her to rethink (or maybe reexperience) her own time as a young mother, causing some serious problems in the present.
It is difficult to write a plot synopsis for a movie like this because it isn’t about its plot. Yes, things happen to Leda and she meets interesting people, but this is far more about what is going on inside her head. The twists, such as they are, are centered on the way Leda reacts to what is happening around her. Why does she seem so uncomfortable when talking to the friendly caretaker of the place she is staying in? Why is she so passive/aggressively confrontational when she is asked to move slightly farther down the beach? And why is it that she cannot take her eyes off Nina and her daughter?
The Lost Daughter (based on the 2006 novel by Elena Ferrante) is the first feature length writing and directing effort by Maggie Gyllenhaal. The best decision she made here is to focus each moment on her lead character. Seemingly every shot is about what Leda does or how Leda feels. Though there is no voice-over narration and she never addresses the audience, this is essentially a filmed equivalent of a first-person narrative. Everything is seen from Leda’s perspective. In addition to making for a fascinating character study, it also makes for an oddly unnerving one because she may not be the most trustworthy protagonist. When she gets alarmed by the family invading her private holiday, they suddenly seem menacing. Does that reflect reality? Or is Leda projecting her insecurities?
Gyllenhaal never forces an emotion or manipulates viewers to like Leda. It would have been so easy to explain away her actions and give her a personal redemption through Nina. A lesser movie might very well have done that. This one knows that life is not so simple.
Leda is played powerfully by Olivia Colman. She is so convincing as a woman trying desperately to not admit to herself that she is unraveling (or has already unraveled). Whether she is flirting with caretaker Lyle (played by the great Ed Harris) or giving motherly advice to Nina (a subtly complex performance by Dakota Johnson), there is always something kind of off about her. Colman is never less than completely absorbing in the role.
Leda is also shown in flashback as a young mother attempting to concentrate on her career while being the primary caregiver for her two young daughters. In these scenes, she is portrayed by Jessie Buckley in a way that suggests the beginning of Leda’s transition from outwardly happy to deeply troubled. The casting here is excellent. Not only does Buckley kind of look like a young Colman here, but their performances perfectly complement each other in painting a larger picture of this woman.
The Lost Daughter challenges its viewers. It presents a complicated and maddening character and never makes it easy to sympathize with her. It reveals her life without contriving explanations. That makes it believable, frustrating and gripping. It would not be a surprise to hear Maggie Gyllenhaal, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley’s names during awards season.
4½ out of 5
Olivia Colman as Leda
Jessie Buckley as Young Leda
Dakota Johnson as Nina
Dagmara Dominczyk as Callie
Ed Harris as Lyle
Paul Mescal as Will
Peter Sarsgaard as Professor Hardy
Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Toni
Written and Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal