‘The Lost Daughter’: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Directorial Debut Is a Searing Portrait of a Mother’s Angst

What was supposed to be a relaxing getaway turns into entirely something else when a college professor, Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley as a young woman), is reminded of her distressing past in Maggie Gyllenhaal directorial debut, “The Lost Daughter,” an unflinching and unpredictable drama based on a novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante. While in Greece, Leda encounters a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who is on vacation with her extended family. Nina’s daughter, Elena (Athena Martin), reminds Leda of her eldest daughter at that age, triggering repressed memories of Leda’s days as a young mother. 

Originally from England and currently living in Cambridge, MA, Leda rents an apartment on the Greek island of Spetses for what she calls a working holiday. It turns out to be less than idyllic from the start, as the place she rents needs a thorough cleaning, and large insects disturb her sleep. It also doesn’t help that Leda does not come across as the type of person who can relax easily, and she gives off a nervous energy that makes some of her interactions with others awkward. First, there’s Lyle (Ed Harris), the American owner of the building she’s staying at. She doesn’t know how to respond to his friendly overtures at first, but the pair end up connecting later on over their shared parenting experiences.

But nothing’s more uncomfortable than Leda’s first interaction with Nina’s large family, Americans from New York. Her pregnant sister-in-law, Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk), asks Leda to move from her spot on the beach so she and her family can all be by each other, and she refuses. Although Callie later apologizes and the two women chat about being mothers, every interaction she has with members of that family afterwards, save for Nina, feels tense. Her friendship with Nina begins a day or two later after little Elena goes missing and Leda finds her. She ends up taking the girl’s doll for reasons that are revealed through the first lengthy flashback.

Buckley is brilliant as young Leda, an academic who married and had children at a relatively young age. Although she loves her two little girls, Bianca (Robyn Elwell) and Martha (Ellie Blake), she doesn’t seem to find motherhood particularly fulfilling and the stress she feels leads to angry outbursts when her kids don’t behave. Her husband Joe (Jack Farthing) isn’t super helpful, and their sex life has become lacking. It’s no shocker when she ends up having an affair with a colleague, Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard), but what transpires next is shattering and life-altering.

In the present day, Leda has a handful of interactions with Nina that makes them feel bonded to each other. This is Johnson’s best, most vulnerable performance to date. In a lot of ways Nina is like a younger version of Leda, although she doesn’t have her intellectual resources or career to fall back on. She engages in an affair with Will (Paul Mescal), an Irish college student who is working on the island for the summer. Early on, Will warns Leda that Nina’s family is dangerous, and she confirms this when she tells Leda that her husband would slit her throat if he discovered her portrayal, and it’s strongly hinted that the family is involved in organized crime. Leda comes to feel almost maternal towards Nina, and Colman and Johnson have some masterful scenes together.

All in all, this is a terrific debut from Gyllenhaal. While one doesn’t have to be a parent to appreciate “The Lost Daughter,” Gyllenhaal’s own experience being a mother no doubt came in handy as the film reflects on the guilt, loneliness and other complex emotions that can come with motherhood. Colman is terrific as Leda, who is battling with lingering feelings about being an “unnatural mother” and struggling to finally forgive herself.

The Lost Daughter” begins streaming Dec. 31 on Netflix.