It comes as no surprise that for her feature directorial debut Maggie Gyllenhaal would choose the challenging job of adapting Italian author Elena Ferrante’s searingly compact novel The Lost Daughter. The film just made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and next heads to Telluride this weekend.
The Last Daughter centers on the kind of strong but complicated and even haunted character Gyllenhaal has often drifted to in her own acting choices, and by landing Olivia Colman to play a woman alone on a seaside vacation experiencing moments of reckoning and dark memories for a life-altering choice made decades earlier, she has crafted a memorable first film that takes its own liberties with the book (the location is moved from Italy to Greece for starters) but is more importantly faithful in presenting a study of motherhood in all its raw complexity. It may be tough going for some audiences to accept, but others will appreciate this aching portrait of a person coming to terms with the past in ways that are powerful to behold in a setting where this kind of revelation is most unexpected. It is a brave choice, but I would expect no less from Gyllenhaal, who keeps proving herself an artist pushing towards the edge in search of truths, no matter how uncomfortable they may be to confront.
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Colman (The Favourite, The Crown, The Father) is given as rich an opportunity as she has ever had, and perhaps her most complex and, in a way, heartbreaking performance since 2011’s Tyrannosaur. We meet her as Leda, a seemingly typical tourist to a Greek seaside vacation town, a woman in her late 40s taking an extended holiday, bringing work and reading to the beach each day who finds her serenity temporary when a large extended family shows up disturbing the calm. Colman plays most of this silently but needs no dialogue at any moment to let us know with her eyes exactly what she is thinking. Slowly we see her attention wander from the work at hand — we learn she is a professor who has rented an apartment for the summer — and keeps watching a beautiful young woman, Nina ( an excellent Dakota Johnson) and her little girl Elena, who clutches her doll. So why is she so fixated on them?
Gyllenhaal, through her adaptation and direction, does not fill in a lot of details but instead leisurely lets us immerse ourselves in Leda’s POV, even when she seems quite unlikable as in moments where she refuses a pregnant woman’s request to move a little further down so she can keep her family together. An incident where panic sets in when Elena appears to have vanished eventually eases as Leda joins in the search and actually finds the little girl. This eases tensions with the rest of the beachgoers and allows an apology to the pregnant woman (Dagmar Domincyck), as well as gratitude directly from Nina. It gets deeper though when Elena throws a fit about losing her beloved doll, a doll Leda inexplicably has stashed in her own bag and taken back to her apartment.
That doll becomes a running character as it becomes something of an obsession for Leda, leading into a series of flashbacks to her own life as the mother of two young girls. Jessie Buckley takes on the role very effectively as the younger Leda who we see in various stages of motherhood, but also as a career-oriented scholar who feels bringing up a family with her less exciting husband is also interfering with her own ambitions. The flashbacks are then interspersed throughout as Leda’s vacation drifts into deeply hidden memories, regrets and delayed introspection on bringing up her own daughters now grown and in their 20s. A startling life decision haunts her as she must confront the choices made that she can never take back.
A great deal of the film is played out in those flashbacks, and scenes with Leda on the beach, in her apartment, or out in the small town. Gyllenhaal and Colman let all the pieces of this puzzle add up deliberately and slowly, but especially in scenes involving her fixation on the doll, never quite become a recipe into making us believe Leda is going mad and that at any minute this is all going to turn into grand guignol. Gyllenhaal is too smart, and Colman too good to let those thoughts distract us, though you do wonder about this obsession with a child’s toy. It all makes the secrets, lies, and revelations all the more powerful when they come.
Oddly my mind kept going back to the 1968 film version of another slim literary work, John Cheever’s The Swimmer, where we watched Burt Lancaster as a man ostensibly swimming home through a series of neighbor pools, uncertain of his reasons or where the film will eventually wind up. Leda indeed has several encounters with different people along the way to her own awakening including the nice man (Ed Harris) who sets her up in the apartment and tries to strike a friendship along the way, and the young man Will (Paul Mescal) from the beach who also befriends her to the point where you suspect this could be heading in another direction — until it doesn’t. Her increasing interactions with Nina as well as various others are vital, but secondary to the focus squarely on what is happening on this vacation to Leda, and all building to a poignant climax, appropriately on a beach.
You simply cannot say enough about the performance of Colman here, one so deep and immersive, its most revealing moments consisting of no words but only a heartbreakingly expressive face of a woman in a private crisis of conscience that washes up on what is supposed to be a relaxing holiday when she is finally once again truly alone. It is Colman’s show all the way, and further indication if you needed it that she is one of the greats. Buckley, in sharing the role, is also again demonstrating her extraordinary range. Peter Sarsgaard (Gyllenhaal’s husband) turns up briefly in the flashbacks as well playing a professor with whom the younger Leda gets romantically involved on a trip away from her own husband and family.
The production credits including fine cinematography from Helene Louvart are all first rate, with a special shout-out to the exceptional and vibrant musical score from Dickon Hinchliffe that really helps to define the ever-changing tones of the piece. Gyllenhaal also serves as producer along with Charlie Dorfman, Osnat Handelsman-Keren, and Talia Kleinhendler.
Netflix plans a brief exclusive theatrical run in mid-December followed by a streaming debut at the end of the year.