It’s always interesting to see an actor make their directorial debut and decide not to star in it. And maybe that’s because it speaks to their humility, in a way. But it’s also interesting when you still sense their screen presence in the film anyway: a strength and specificity of personality that survives their absence and colors other actors’ performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes such a debut with her sinuous, quietly electrifying The Lost Daughter: it may be her first film, and yet you’d already feel comfortable classifying it as “a Gyllenhaal film,” the way you might name-brand Lucrecia Martel or Michelangelo Antonioni — to name two other directors briefly (though not derivatively) reflected in this film’s beautifully watchful aesthetic.
Adapted from Elena Ferrante‘s novel of the same title, the material of this film actually seems right up Gyllenhaal’s alley as an actor, which only makes her restraint in staying off-screen all the more notable. From the sadomasochistic office assistant of Secretary to the obsessive classroom teacher of The Kindergarten Teacher, she’s an actor who specializes in women others might (mis)label as “difficult,” with inscrutable desires and ill-fitting social graces. And sure enough, that sympathy for difficulty serves her in all manner of ways here. Especially with her protagonist Leda, a forty-something literature professor vacationing alone on a balmy Greek island yet unable to find psychological peace. So while Gyllenhaal herself could’ve very well played Leda, over time it becomes hard to imagine she (of really anyone else) would have been better than the extraordinary Olivia Colman, who wears the role as naturally and unfussily as the oversize white linen blouse that is Leda’s default beachwear. It’s a role that Coleman hasn’t had in a while; a more “normal” female protagonist after the stylized work of playing various queens to Oscar-and-Emmy-winning effect.
Those quotation marks should very well be noted, as there’s nothing especially “normal” about Leda, a woman who tartly rejects any prescriptive model of what a woman should be. The more time we spend with her, the more complications we see in her reserved, polite, slightly skittish demeanor: a first impression that wouldn’t draw a second glance from most people, in large part because middle-aged women are so scantly studied by society at all. And Gyllenhaal depicts her as quietly observant, as she studies her surroundings constantly. And through that Gyllenhaal captures one cinema’s more intoxicating attributes: the power of people watching other people. All while Colman plays Leda with the wary knowledge of what it’s like not to be looked at, to keep largely secret one’s eccentricities and flashes of brilliance.
Leda’s on her best behavior when she arrives at the pebbly island, projecting an air of reserved affability to Lyle (a quietly great Ed Harris), the awkwardly flirtatious proprietor of the apartment she’s renting, and Will (Paul Mescal), the young, dreamy resort manager she admires from a slightly sheepish distance. But her spinier attributes emerge when her idyll is crashed by a rowdy extended family of vacationers with various squealing children in tow. Her initial hostility toward them is met in kind by queen bee Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk), though she grows increasingly fixated on Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who never seems entirely at home in the role. Bleary and sporadically detached from her sweet daughter, she has more of a kindred spirit in Leda than she realizes. For Leda, we gradually learn, refers to herself as an “unnatural mother”: She mentions her two adult daughters when asked, and speaks good-naturedly to them on the phone from time to time, yet long stretches go by when they don’t seem to be on her mind at all. The film’s title is just its first feat of clever wrong-footing in this regard, as an increasingly intricate flashback structure — like the continuous, spiraling skin of the oranges she peeled for her daughters as girls, her one maternal party trick — fills us in on Leda’s history of discomfort and disassociation as a mother.
The younger Leda is remarkably played by Jessie Buckley with flinty defiance and an escalating sense of suffocated mania. While both Coleman and Buckley don’t resemble each other at all, Gyllenhaal, despite the physical dissimilarity, makes no crass attempt to hide it, as both actors become one palimpsest of a performance, the lines of one showing faintly through onto the other: Buckley an echo of the past for Colman; Colman a ghost of the future for Buckley. The physical and gestural mirroring between the two actors is quite astonishing: Often, Colman’s distinctive expressions emerge as uncanny flashes and flinches in Buckley’s visage, like a ghost of motherhood future. These are performances that feel duly steered by a director with an empathetic understanding of unusual women and unusual actors alike; Gyllenhaal and great cinematographer Hélène Louvart, jaggedly zeroes in on faces and features, in long-lens, handheld close-ups, with equivalent empathy and fascination.
For a film that contains no explicit violence or violations, The Lost Daughter nonetheless feels quiveringly, exhilaratingly close to something taboo. It’s a rare film that dares to question the supposedly inviolable value of motherhood — a phenomenon typically held up as so sacred that any women who don’t feel attuned to it are encouraged to doubt themselves. It’s a film filled with rough, possibly surprising honesty: At one point, Nina, expecting a reply full of angst and regret, asks “How did it feel, to be away from your daughters?” And while the regret is there, the reply that comes — “It felt amazing,” says Leda — is so forthright that it hits you like a ton of bricks. But it’s not at all surprising, though, that Gyllenhaal has arrived as a filmmaker with such a bold, conflicted paean to unorthodox femininity. Yet it’s still thrilling just the same. Intensely intimate and vigorously observant, The Lost Daughter skillfully captures an at times unsettling if honest emotional transparency; a rare display of maternal ambivalence that casts a calm yet uneasy spell.
The Lost Daughter is available to stream on Netflix