In a strong year for women behind the camera at awards ceremonies, familiar Hollywood actresses are also being given more chances to direct than in previous years.
Yet unlike Robin Wright’s Land, which chose sentiment over coherence, The Lost Daughter is definitely going for something. Maggie Gyllenhaal has adapted Elena Ferrante’s novel with a provocative script and made a fittingly thorny and morally ambiguous film. It’s far from perfect, but there’s enough directorial boldness to get excited about.
Olivia Colman stars as Leda, a professor nearing 50 who opts for a few chill days away at a Greek beach — and gets anything but.
That’s mostly because of the Italian mob-aligned family sharing the beach, whose matriarch is Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk). Her name translates to “the most beautiful”, she tells Leda matter-of-factly. In tow are young mum Nina (Dakota Johnson), her young daughter and seminally dodgy husband Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
Leda’s strange surroundings prompt reflections of her past, where she is played sparklingly by Jessie Buckley. Particularly appropriate are Leda’s own wounding experiences as a young mum alongside partner Joe (Jack Farthing, who it’s good to see playing anyone but Prince Charles now).
Despite that Agatha Christie premise, not too much actually happens in The Lost Daughter, a character and vibes-centric drama grounded by the wonderful performances of Colman and Ed Harris as shady housekeeper Lyle. Paul Mescal also stars as Will, an Irish student spending the summer as a handyman at the most complicated beach on the Adriatic.
Still, he’s not as busy as he would be in a more interesting movie. Leda’s life as a young ambitious woman first and mum second are the more eventful. Watching Colman dwell on all that is arresting enough, but the more time we spend with Buckley and Farthing, the better The Lost Daughter is.
Though clearly striving for the profound, The Lost Daughter never quite delivers on its early promise. It’s particularly let down by a surprisingly weak ending, which resolves little and entertains even less. (As an aside: any movie in which Olivia Colman drives around singing Talking Heads should win my heart. That this didn’t says something.)
Gyllenhaal will get more chances behind the camera. For a debut, this is a bold break from the cautious career openers we too often see from new directors. We can only hope she delivers on that early promise next time around.