Olivia Colman is a great actress, who in "The Lost Daughter," has never been better. She plays Leda Caruso, an academic who is vacationing in Greece, alone. It's a deeply compelling character study of not just this woman, but of all women, who face societal pressures to not only become mothers, but the best mothers that they can be. Existing solely for the sake of others is perhaps the most selfless act in the world, but it doesn't leave a lot of room for personal - or what some may consider "selfish" - happiness.
Directed and adapted by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal - in this her directorial debut - "The Lost Daughter" bucks conventions to become one of the few films of 2021 that is simply impossible to forget.
The film is based on the novel of the same name, by Italian author Elena Ferrante, which is a pseudonym...Ferrante herself is a mystery and her reclusiveness bleeds through to Leda. Gyllenhaal apparently won her over and was hand-picked not only to adapt the book for the screen, but to direct it herself.
The first half of the film is pure observation...we literally watch Leda as she watches others. There's a perhaps-too-friendly hotel attendant (Paul Mescal) and a kind and helpful maintenance man (Ed Harris), who in a different film, would have been the perfect fit for a love interest for Leda. Her secluded beach relaxation is abruptly cut short by a massive, loud and brash family from Queens, and when the pregnant mother (Dagmara Dominczyk) asks Leda if she can move so that the family can all sit together, Leda refuses. There are reasons as to why.
But it's a young mother in the clan, Nina (Dakota Johnson), that seems to really stoke something within Leda. Nina is beautiful and youthful, and caring for her three-year-old daughter while also fighting and then being overly romantic with what Leda assumes is her husband. When the girl goes missing on the beach, it's Leda who finds her and her doll. She reunites the child with her mother, but hangs on to the doll, meticulously caring for it back in her hotel room.
Colman is only responsible for one-half of Leda's portrayal, as the other half - told in flashbacks - is played by the fabulous Jesse Buckley. It's the younger version of Leda where we begin to discover some of the deep-buried psychological stresses that she develops. Gyllenhaal's real-life husband, Peter Sarsgaard, shows up in the flashbacks as a Professor that Leda has an affair with, and who represents her internal struggles between self and selflessness.
"The Lost Daughter" could have been a lost cause, if not handled with truth and great care. It's because of Gyllenhaal's direction, matched with some award-worthy performances, that propels this film into the stratosphere. Colman specifically, I was ready to hand an Oscar too after the first 10 minutes in which she literally just looks around and drinks a glass of water. She's that good.
The film rarely goes in directions that you'll anticipate, and it handles motherhood - womanhood - with such honesty that it feels abrasive at first, but liberating moments later. It's a heck of an achievement.
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute.
Starring: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Buckley, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Jack Farthing, Dagmara Dominczyk.
Based on the novel by Elena Ferrante.
Adapted and Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal (feature-film directorial debut).
"The Lost Daughter" is streaming on Netflix on Friday, December 31st, 2021.
Looking for a specific movie or review?