Olivia Colman displays her dark side in Maggie Gyllenhaal's sun-bleached psychodrama about motherhood in crisis.
Cinema is full of stories about trouble in paradise. There is something about the unspoiled tranquility of sun and sea that tempts past demons to the surface, as if our species wasn’t built to be happy for long. Familiarity blindness sets in and historic battles with ourselves rise up.
Maggie Gyllenhaal uses her directorial debut – which is based on a novel of the same name by Italian sensation Elena Ferrante – to revel in and wrestle with what it looks like to have been a bad mother. The result is an off-kilter psychodrama driven by a stressful leading lady.
When Leda (Olivia Colman) first arrives at the Greek island where she is renting a room for the summer from weatherbeaten American expat, Kyle (Ed Harris), she can’t believe her eyes, gawping at the spectacle. She is a successful academic who teaches Italian Literature, presumably at Harvard (she mentions being from Boston by way of her birthplace in Shipley in Yorkshire) and taking a solo holiday for her summer break. How soothing, you might think, but for this 48-year-old career woman, the arrival of a boisterous family of Greek-Americans on her beach stirs up memories that push her into an uncomfortable headspace.
The always-excellent Colman proves her versatility anew by acting in a mode not seen before in her back-catalogue. Under Gyllenhaal’s direction the sweetness that radiates from her face, voice and energy are undercut by a calculated sense of animal selfishness that swings between impressive and excessive.
Any solo traveller who has ever defended their space from the presumptuous overspill of a group is likely to cheer inside when Leda refuses to move from under a beach umbrella to make way for a family at the request of pregnant woman, Kalli (Dagmara Dominczyk), who is soon joined by her grizzled husband and a youth who calls Leda a “cunt”. They are three members of an intimidatingly large cabal that includes Nina (Dakota Johnson) a dark-haired vixen who has a young daughter, Elena, with her husband, Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, playing another sexy bad-boy post The Haunting of Bly Manor).
One day, when Nina and Toni are fighting, Elena goes missing. The entire noisy family is mobilised as a search party. The film flashes back to a time when Leda, as a young mother (played by Jessie Buckley), is searching for her own lost daughter. Early signs that this is a character study less ordinary manifest in Colman’s steely reaction to this objectively distressing memory. This is a woman who can wilfully freeze her emotions dead. She does so and then sets off to find Elena, returning her to a grateful Nina. Then, for some inexplicable reason, she steals the child’s treasured doll.
The story pivots around the question of what has happened to Leda’s two daughters, a drama dripfed into place via flashbacks. Meanwhile, in the present, Leda and Nina develop a cautious friendship, despite the oppressive sense that her family’s eyes are everywhere: lurking and disapproving. Added tension arises from the extremely high-stakes attached to the doll, as the family put up ‘MISSING’ posters advertising a reward for its return.
Hot property Paul Mescal shows up as a beach house manager and warns Leda that the family are “bad people” as she seems to encounter them with increasing frequency. Interactions contain a strange chemistry, pleasant-seeming but with a hint of sourness that threatens to overwhelm the mood. The extent to which this family’s malevolence is real, as opposed to a figment of Leda’s paranoiac imagination, is something that Gyllenhaal never betrays.
The Lost Daughter is a strange beast with an unwieldy structure and an uncanniness that is never quite anchored by events. Disparate plotlines abound without coming together in a satisfyingly coherent way. It may not all add up but this is an ambitious and taboo-tackling first feature with an atmosphere that lingers thanks to gutsy performances from Colman and Buckley.
Published 3 Sep 2021