Maggie Gyllenhaal makes an impressive directorial debut with The Lost Daughter (2021), a film she also wrote and co-produced. Based on the novel by Elena Ferrante, this one is a subdued psychological drama about Leda Caruso (the great Olivia Colman), a middle-aged academic on holiday in Greece. Leda’s reflective, solitary vacation is characterized by quiet personal moments and occasional interactions with the much-older man, named Lyle (Ed Harris), the caretaker who looks after her rental apartment. Leda’s visits to the beach eventually lead to an unexpected friendship with a young woman named Nina (Dakota Johnson) who is clearly struggling with the emotional and physical exhaustion of motherhood. It’s a feeling Leda knows all too well from personal experience, which she reflects back on with a mix of self-aware vindication and haunted guilt as her interactions with Nina and her obnoxious extended family continue.
The Lost Daughter requires patient viewing, but rewards it with an intriguing slow build and fantastic performances (as usual) from both Colman and Jessie Buckley, always worth watching, who does a superb job playing Leda’s younger self in flashbacks that inform the present story. Together, Colman and Buckley brilliantly enact a two-pronged unreliable narrator whose behavior in the face of societal expectation is at once against the grain and relatable. Whether the stately rhythms of the plot or literary sensibility of the theme are sufficient payoff for the tantalizing early mystery is probably going to be polarizing, but for me it worked well, adeptly manipulating the attention to tell a simple but effective and impactful story.