'The Lost Daughter' review: Olivia Coleman and Jessie Buckley anchor flawed tale of motherhood
Courtesy of Netflix
Not without fault, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s assured directorial debut “The Lost Daughter” makes her a rising filmmaker to watch. Based on the novella by Elena Ferrante, “The Lost Daughter” tackles familiar themes around motherhood, but Gyllenhaal brings a different type of matured lens. She feels right for the moment and with an emotionally vulnerable Olivia Coleman in the driver's seat plus the luxury of being filmed on location in the Greece countryside, it’s a solid debut even if the disjoined nature of the narrative occasionally creates a jarring viewing experience.
Partially because there’s two storylines competing for our attention and one is clearly more engaging and stimulating than the other. Both revolve around the same character played by different actresses in the past and present. Coleman plays Leda in the present as a middle-aged English professor who ventures off on Holiday to the stunning Greece countryside for a reset. She’s traveling alone and keeps to herself despite the villa manager (played with a carefree attitude by a surprisingly loose Ed Harris) trying to start a conversation. Most of her days are spent at the beach, observing the tourists and locals, but that’s upended after witnessing a spat of drama around a missing child.
Leda finds the young tyke wandering alone and she returns her to the girl’s stressed mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson) and instantly becomes the savior and beacon of sunshine for the beachside community. Meanwhile, without anyone knowing, she snatchs the little girl’s prized doll for reasons not very clear at first. So while everyone is conducting a massive search party for this little girl’s precious toy, Leda keeps it hidden in her villa.
The doll has sentimental value to Leda who we learn via flashbacks has two daughters and it’s here where “The Lost Daughter” comes alive. Now played by Jessie Buckley, Leda is a smart and revered scholar dealing with kids who drive her crazy. This dynamic (she’s left alone while her husband works) creates a bitter divide within herself as her life’s work is gaining national attention but she’s feeling held back and suffocated by the pressures of motherhood.
Gyllenhaal excels in the transitions between the present and the past, though she can’t resist the urge to utilize choppy filmmaking tactics like intense close-up and other swirling camera techniques to fuel the isolation Leda feels on a daily basis. “The Lost Daughter” is presented in a matted aspect ratio as if the message wasn’t already clear, but the present day scenes come up short. The subplot involving the stolen doll creates tension, however, it’s never involving enough to justify its existence as does Nina’s affair with a local resort employee, which is supposed to mirror Leda’s infidelites from the past. There’s murmurs about Nina’s in-laws being ruthless mobsters who run the town and are defined as “bad people” but it never becomes anything more than a muted talking point.
Despite these flimser elements, “The Lost Daughter” still cooks up a relatable social dynamic and the two handers between Johnson and Coleman as well as Peter Skarsgaard, playing Leda’s lover in the flashback scenes, and Buckly keep the film down to earth. There’s always something to gaze upon and dissect in “The Lost Daughter” even if the mood doesn’t always strike the correct way.
THE LOST DAUGHTER debuts on Netflix Friday, December 31st.