Maggie Gyllenhaal didn’t opt for an easy task with her feature directorial debut. There’s presumably a straightforward way to to adapt Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel, The Lost Daughter, to the screen, laying out the embers of emotion and the character conflicts in a manner than resembles any number of stern dramas. Instead, Gyllenhaal, who also penned the screenplay, opts for mild abstraction and a precarious tonal imbalance. As literature professor Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) vacations at a Greek beach community, the people around her, especially a noisy, slightly menacing family, start to stir up memories of her own tangled past. This is depicted with the expected techniques — flashbacks that are clearly cued as being such — but the film is more fascinating for the ways it subverts narrative safety.
It shouldn’t feel all that unique that Gyllenhaal artfully employs subtler tools of film storytelling, such as visual motifs and sly symbols. Without resorting to literal statements, Gyllenhaal underscores the parallels to her past life that Leda finds on holiday, creating a haze of disorientation that matches that endured by the character. For the viewer, though, it’s less disturbing than pleasurably disarming, the drifty pleasure that results from the last cocktail before reaching the point of one cocktail too many. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of other filmmakers working today with a similar commitment to using the tools at the disposal to make challenging art. It’s still remarkable to see these choices used in a high-gloss film with major actors and obviously robust backing. At a time when the movies more than ever default to thwip thwip bang bang, the presence of real art is almost startling.
Much as Gyllenhaal immediately distinguishes herself as an uncommonly deft and deep cinematic thinker. What’s less surprising, and just as satisfying, is the skill with actors Gyllenhaal demonstrates. It’s perhaps no surprise to discover a great Colman performance at this point, but Gyllenhaal really does help her dig deep, deep, deep into the character, portraying her citrus-on-open-cuts harshness with a resonant honesty that allows for the complexity within it without being particularly beholden to making the vulnerability and hurt in the churn of her psyche provide redemptive cleansing. As the younger version of the character, Jessie Buckley is nearly Colman’s equal, playing the more adrift version of the discernibly same person, before the callouses of living have built up. The cast is further peppered with ace turns — special citations for Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, and Dagmara Domińczyk — some of them fleeting, which Gyllenhaal realizes means they need to be strikingly precise. An uncommonly cunning performer on the other side of the camera, Gyllenhaal carves out the space for just about everyone to make an impression.
The Lost Daughter is powerhouse because of Gyllenhaal’s tight control of the material. Sure, the film flirts with melodrama and even thriller trappings. It mainly stays measured, even a touch elusive, in its depictions of a woman reckoning with herself. There’s simply no need to raise the temperature, Gyllenhaal seems to say. A steady simmer can scald, too.