Olivia Colman toplines an excellent cast in Maggie Gyllenhaal's nuanced directorial debut.

Meeting Leda, a middle-aged British professor on summer holiday in Greece, you wouldn't raise an eyebrow, at first. (Olivia Colman turns the mundane into something quietly extraordinary.) She is alone — no shame in that — and clearly loves her freedom, sticking her head out the window of her rented car and smiling in the warm island breeze. Leda also values her privacy and when a brassy Queens family, also on vacation, invades her space on the beach, she pushes back, tartly but firmly.

But something deeper gnaws at her, which we begin to detect as The Lost Daughter shades itself in, expertly, at a pace that flatters close watchers and listeners. Leda is cross-cut with two women who inform her story: First, there's a twentysomething mother on a nearby chaise lounge, Nina (Dakota Johnson, never better), one of the Queens clan. Her hair is a tangle and she's overwhelmed by her child and an enervating sense of depression.

Then, in flashback, we see a younger version of Leda herself (Jessie Buckley, expertly nailing the trickiest turn of the film), struggling to make good on her academic ambitions as two rambunctious kids fray her nerves. "Children are a crushing responsibility," the grown-up Leda says, not so casually or warmly, and you lean in, bracing for a different kind of movie. When that film finally arrives, you're knocked back by its boldness.

Much of this delicious complexity is due to Elena Ferrante, the popular pseudonymous Italian author on whose 2006 novel this film is based. (If you're up on HBO's My Brilliant Friend, it's tempting to see Leda as some grown-up variation of bookish Lenù.) But the lion's share of the credit for the film working as well as it does belongs to Maggie Gyllenhaal, making her directorial debut in a project she might have easily starred in. 

You expect Gyllenhaal, herself an intuitive performer in movies like Secretary and Crazy Heart, to be generous with the actors, letting them lean into the awkward tensions and on-the-fly revisions where the magic happens. But it's unexpected — and significant — that she adapted the material herself, choosing a book with no less than five major female characters. There's a real filmmaker here as well, and The Lost Daughter displays a storytelling confidence and technical flair that veterans strain to achieve.

In some moments, Gyllenhaal confidently dials down the volume of the dialogue, resulting in poetic images that are almost unbearable to watch, like one of a child's doll flung from an apartment window, shattering on the pavement below. In another scene, the director pumps up Roberta Flack's churning, wailing "I Told Jesus" as sonic terrain to a heartbreaking scene of abandonment, the front door closing to pleas.

Most impressively, Gyllenhaal refuses to judge her characters, even as they stray into behavior that's messy and damaged. Leda commits an act on the island (no spoilers here) that you might find unspeakable, something truly mean-spirited, and still, Colman has us hanging on her every nuance and inflection. Carefully, Gyllenhaal is extending to her audience a trust, namely that we'll summon the empathy to explore the roots of someone's pain. It's a moviegoing experience, sure — and if you need to hear it, one of the best of the year. But it's really a call to compassion, which makes it transcendent. A

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The Lost Daughter (2021 movie)
  • Movie
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal