Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first feature film has big ambitions

The lost daughter ★★★ ½
(MA15 +) 122 minutes, Netflix, starting December 31

The lost daughter It is based on a novel by the Italian writer known as Elena Ferrante, whose identity remains a closely guarded secret. The film is equally mysterious as it delves into a woman’s emotions about motherhood, children, and her feelings of guilt. In the 1940s it would have been called a “woman photo”, but most of them were taken by men.

This is the first film from the wonderfully talented Maggie Gyllenhaal, and she has already appeared on several lists of the 10 best films of 2021. With a great central performance by Olivia Colman, she has depth, intelligence and a powerful seriousness of purpose. It’s also unerringly grim, raising questions about how we respond, as an audience.

Dakota Johnson, left, and Olivia Colman explore motherhood and guilt in The Lost Daughter.Credit:Yannis Drakoulidis / Netflix

Colman, as Leda Caruso, collapses on a deserted beach on a Greek island in the opening scene. The rest of the film shows us how he got there: his arrival for a vacation in a comfortable private villa; his discomfort at the intrusion on the beach of a large and crude Greek-American family; his fascination with one of the young women in the family, the beautiful and haunted-looking Nina (Dakota Johnson); the drama that follows when Nina’s spoiled daughter loses her favorite doll.

Leda is not a nice person, as Ed Harris freely admits, playing a longtime resident of the island. She is bitter, petty, reserved, and superior. She is a professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, which suggests that she teaches at Harvard or MIT. He has two daughters of his own. Much of the film shows his struggles with those daughters when they were little. Jessie Buckley plays the youngest, Leda, a free-spirited young mother, wife, and scholar; his performance has more warmth, necessarily. She is playing the woman before the wounds.

So why did it seem to me that the movie did not fulfill his ambitions a bit? It may simply be that those ambitions are so high. Gyllenhaal clearly loves the novel; he wants to do it justice, but adapting a great novel is dangerous.

Gabriel García Márquez once said that great novels cannot be filmed; Better to film a minor novel with more freedom, he argued. The two forms have fed each other for a century, but they have fundamentally different rhythms. Novelists can take their time, but a film adaptation that embraces those rhythms often dies in a ditch. Ferrante’s novel is about a woman’s state of mind. The plot, also known as the action, is minimal. That may work, but it is a very high bar.

Charging

Gyllenhaal works hard, perhaps too hard, to reflect that literary quality. It keeps Leda’s feelings unfamiliar, allowing Colman to develop his slow fiery disintegration on screen. That means we have to work for long periods without much lighting. Gyllenhaal rewards that patience with a spectacular ending, but by then some will have given up. It’s hard to keep sympathy for such a deeply closed woman, even when played by two great actors. There is a long and honorable tradition of films that do this, defying our expectations and challenging us to judge, but it is a knife edge for a director.

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