First-time feature director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter premiered at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the best screenplay prize. Gyllenhaal adapted the script from Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel. Now, lead actor Olivia Colman has received an Oscar nomination for her utterly enthralling performance.
Colman plays “Leda,” a professor of comparative literature living in “Cambridge, near Boston.” We meet her on vacation on a small Greek beach which she appears to have to herself. Slowly, the idyllic setting reveals previously hidden irritants that Leda regards as minor. She’s visibly ruffled, though, when a large extended family with some loud individuals arrive. Leda does manage to make an emotional connection—albeit one with blurry boundaries—with a young mother in the boisterous clan. The mysterious “Nina” (played by Dakota Johnson) and her toddler daughter catalyze Leda’s troubling, vivid memories of her behavior as a young mother of two daughters.
Her memories are depicted in effective, well-edited, third-person flashbacks in which she’s played by Jessie Buckley, deftly, smartly (Buckley is also nominated for an Academy Award, for supporting actress). We witness Leda as a young mother, struggling—with only the lousy parenting skills she learned in her own troubled childhood—to bring a semblance of order to her home. We also see her in her element—the world of academia and philosophy. Not just a respected author in her field, she parlays her status as a talented mind into unstoppable seductive, sexual prowess.
But, present-day Leda haunts as much as she is haunted, and that duality is key to The Lost Daughter’s cringingly effective, immediate intimacy. It’s the type of intense psychological drama that makes it look easy. After seeing it, I was left with a bunch of adjectives floating in my brain—all pointing to a movie of remarkable power: “creepy,” “freewheeling,” “hard-to-watch,” “lusty” (at least four supporting characters—young and old, men and women—seem to want to take the latter-day Leda to bed). Full of bold, satisfying symbolism, unflinching, and pleasantly unhinged, it’s clear why it received a four-minute standing ovation on opening night at Venice.
As I watched it, I noticed myself squirming at times and covering my mouth with my hand (as if trying to keep the nastiness on screen from crawling inside me). In the end, Gyllenhaal wildly weaves a big-brimmed bonnet of psychological pain around your head. Then she plunges an enormous, steely hat pin into it, so it stays put.
the international CRITIQUE rating: