As an actor, Maggie Gyllenhaal has generally shown an admirable disinterest in cliched depictions of womanhood, so it should come as no surprise that her directorial debut, adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter, is a boldly thorny and utterly unapologetic psychological exploration of women shredding the boundaries set for them. Needling and discomforting, it constantly plays with and confounds your expectations, testing the limits of your empathy, while Gyllenhaal also proves herself an adept stylist, taking lessons from the great directors she’s previously worked with and mixing them into an intoxicating cocktail.
Flashing back and forth through time, The Lost Daughter laser-focuses in on Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), whose working holiday on a luxurious Greek island is disrupted by the arrival of a large, loud, and generally awful Italian-American family. Slightly against her will, Leda becomes intertwined with this clan after the young daughter of the glamorous Nina (Dakota Johnson) goes missing and Leda manages to be the one to find her. In these early scenes, Gyllenhaal does a great job of immediately ingratiating Leda to us – her desire for peace and quiet is painfully relatable, her daughters sound cruelly distant over the phone, and she’s got an easy rapport with Nina’s little girl – but it’s not long before the tune changes.
Leda chooses to secretly steal the child’s beloved doll, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, and a psychological cold war between Leda and Nina’s family is born from the suspicion in the aftermath. In the meantime, we learn more and more about Leda, and what we find isn’t very nice. Her initially charming and funny spikiness becomes symptomatic of a darker and more poisonous misanthropy which has its origins in her own time as a mother to two young daughters. In the flashbacks to these moments, Leda (played in her younger form by Jessie Buckley) is more untethered, both in her joy and her rage.
Colman and Buckley each give exceptional but nicely distinct performances, creating a full picture of someone who has had too much time to self-reflect and curdled inside at some point between her youth and middle age. The mothers in The Lost Daughter often seem to genuinely hate their children – Dakota Johnson is also brilliant as a woman struggling with both this and an incredibly oppressive husband and extended family – and while Gyllenhaal doesn’t ask for too much sympathy, she does a superb job of showing how this ‘unthinkable’ mindset can grow.
Leda’s daughters, the elder one in particular, are supernaturally annoying and sometimes just plain nasty, and Gyllenhaal uses invasive, disorienting close-ups to convey the sheer exhaustion of looking after a pair of, to put it delicately, little shits. The Lost Daughter is not just fantastically written, but directed by Gyllenhaal with a confidence, flair, and consistency that absolutely does not betray the fact that this is her first feature. Most films with ‘difficult’ central characters drop their flaws front and centre, allowing the audience to warm to them in their own time, but The Lost Daughter is bold enough to go the other way, making its heroine less likeable in a systematic, step-by-step process until you’re not sure where your allegiances lie.
It forces the audience to ask themselves where their sympathies for imperfect women stop, and whether there are crimes they may forgive men and fathers for that are irredeemable when committed by a mother. In Gyllenhaal’s capable hands, these questions defy easy answers, buzzing around your head long after the credits roll like unwelcome wasps ruining your day at the beach.