No one says what they mean in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s astonishing directorial debut The Lost Daughter, but everything they do say is loaded with meaning. Conversations feel like stepping off the sand of one of the inviting beaches of the Greek island on which it takes place, and into waters concealing strong crosscurrents and a dangerous undertow. This is in part a function of the feelings of maternal ambivalence at the center of the film, which are so mundane and at the same time so taboo that when the characters recognize what they’ve been through in someone else, their instinct is to lash out rather than commiserate. But it’s also a testament to the way that the film unfolds in a parallel language of women, in a vocabulary built on close observations and almost imperceptible gestures learned over lifetimes of being expected to smooth over rumples in the social fabric.
An offer of a slice of birthday cake and an edged compliment (“We were saying before you couldn’t be more than 40”) from Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk), the matriarch of an unruly Queens family renting one of the island’s villas, doubles as a terrifying dominance display. A lightly delivered observation from Leda (Olivia Colman), the film’s protagonist, about her children (“The bits I find most beautiful about them are the bits that are alien to me … so I don’t have to take responsibility for that”) is a confession that goes unnoticed by the half-drunk young man who witnesses it. Leda, who’s also played by Jessie Buckley in flashbacks to around two decades earlier, has in the present day reached an age where the men around her seem to perceive her with a growing blurriness, as though unable to fully maintain focus on her. But the women gaze at her, and she looks back, with a clarity whose sharpness isn’t a comfort.
The Lost Daughter is adapted from a novel by Elena Ferrante that takes place almost entirely inside Leda’s head and is by no means an obvious candidate to be translated onto the screen. But rather than try to wrestle with the interior nature of her source material, Gyllenhaal embraces it, trusting in her actors to transmit complex interior states the characters they’re playing wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate out loud if asked. She has incredible collaborators in Colman and Buckley, actors who don’t especially resemble one another but who create a seamless life through the force of their melded performances. As the older Leda, a comparative literature professor at Harvard (you can tell from the way she says she’s “from Cambridge … near Boston”) who’s taking a solo working holiday that clearly sounded better in her head than in awkward practice, Colman is prickly and defensive, unable to cut loose and indulge the way she’d like to, and to decide, for instance, if caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) is hitting on her, and if she wants him to be hitting on her.
As the younger Leda, Buckley fights to carve out time for her academic ambitions while also feeling crushed beneath the constant needs of her children, a sensation both exacerbated by but also separate from her attempts to have a professional life. In the memories that force their way to the surface — The Lost Daughter is very much the cinema of intrusive thoughts — Buckley conjures up a woman smothered by sticky-sweet child kisses and staggering away from clinging hugs, aware that her temper is too short but unable to help herself. What triggers these glimpses of the past is an encounter that is also the reason The Lost Daughter might be described as a thriller, despite the lowness of its stakes. Leda becomes fixated on the striking Nina (Dakota Johnson), who’s part of Callie’s clan, and who has a little girl who Leda helps find when the child briefly wanders off and gets lost.
At first, Leda’s interest in Nina seems born out of the way Nina reminds Leda of her own stretch as a young mother who seems, whether as part of an agreement with her husband or just gendered expectations, to shoulder childcare duties by herself. But it’s actually Nina’s struggles that pull Leda in, the way she sometimes chafes at her child’s proprietary ease with her mother’s body, or finds herself unable to tolerate that child’s runaway emotions. Leda sees in Nina another woman who’s still waiting for motherhood to come naturally, for nurturing to be effortless and for boundless well of patience to open up within her. Rather than offering kinship and affirming the normalcy of these experiences to the desperate Nina, though, Leda performs a capricious act of cruelty, stealing a beloved doll belonging to Nina’s daughter and guaranteeing a week of tears and tantrums.
It speaks to the pitiless excellence of The Lost Daughter that the film is marked by signals like that, ones that you understand even if the characters themselves wouldn’t be able to explain them. They’re the responses of characters who understand the unfairness of what they’ve been socialized to believe, but who can’t bring themselves to let go of those expectations in others, or to see themselves as anything other than unnatural. Leda teeters on a fulcrum in which self and motherhood have been placed on opposite sides, as though one can only come at the expense of the other. In the past, a trip to an academic conference and some praise from a perfectly smarmy professor played by Peter Sarsgaard spark her to life, until she’s glowing, torch-bright, at the joy of being seen and appreciated for her work. In the present, Leda tortures herself as the solo traveller, unable to take ownership of her own solitude and freedom, her books and work like a protective balustrade around her even when she’s sitting out by the shore, a prison of her own creation.
The Lost Daughter is an incredible first film, an incredible film in general, but its finest quality may be how very adult it is in its perspective on its characters, as though understanding that empathy can require precision more than it does gentleness.