Film Review: “The Lost Girl” | The Harvard Press | Features | Feature Articles
Directed by: Maggie Gyllenhaal
With: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris
Available on Netflix
Rated R, 121 minutes
Olivia Colman is the rare actress capable of finding humor in even the most serious roles. The British actress, who got her start in irreverent television comedies, has built her career on characters always visibly amused by the idiosyncrasies of their lives and often resigned to their own idiosyncrasies. Her breakout role as Queen Anne in 2018’s “The Favourite,” for which she won an Oscar, made excellent use of her comedic instincts. Her performance in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s new drama “The Lost Daughter” also finds Colman embracing the quirks of a character plagued by problems both big and small.
Here she plays Leda Caruso, a teacher vacationing on a remote Greek island, where at every turn her peace and quiet is interrupted – by noisy tourists, by rain, by headlights that disturb her sleep, by huge insects flying through his open window. When she meets a younger woman, Nina (Dakota Johnson, “Fifty Shades of Grey”), the sight of Nina’s young daughter is the biggest disturbance of all, setting off a series of flashbacks to Leda’s own experiences in as a young mother.
“The Lost Daughter” focuses on the juxtapositions and parallels between Leda and Nina, as well as between Leda’s current and former selves. In flashbacks, young Leda (Jessie Buckley, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) progresses through a niche academic circle while struggling to raise two needy daughters. We come to understand that something terrible happened, something that traumatized Leda so much that now, 20 years later, she suffers from chronic vertigo. In Colman’s hands, Leda’s current anxieties are almost humorous, though in a trying sense her situation is so stressful she can’t help but laugh.
Much of the film’s tension comes from the slow reveal of what happened in Leda’s past life, and although we don’t learn this big secret until late in the film, its impact is felt throughout. long. In a scene from today, she inexplicably steals Nina’s daughter’s doll and hides it in a wardrobe; the girl’s ensuing tantrums keep everyone on edge for days. Motherhood, for Leda (and later for Nina), is a series of silent dissociations, a constant buildup of relentless tension. “I felt like I was trying not to explode,” she says of her early years of motherhood; to Nina’s pregnant sister, she says, almost cheerfully, “Children are an overwhelming responsibility,” and walks away.
The ebb and flow of its story makes “The Lost Daughter” particularly subversive, its unusual structure complementing Leda’s unusual instincts. (“I’m not a natural mother,” she admits bluntly.) Simple moments — a dinner shared between Leda and local handyman, Lyle (Ed Harris, “The Truman Show”); a trip to the local theater ruined by rambunctious teenagers; an encounter with Nina’s husband in a parking lot while she was looking for her rental car – taking on the weight of her crisis of conscience, possessing all the tension of an act of violence without bloodshed. The characters drift away from each other and then approach with sudden intensity, always saying the exact wrong thing, always too emotionally distant to find peace with each other.
It’s an impressive and assured effort from writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal, who makes her debut behind the camera here. Adapting the screenplay from Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name, Gyllenhaal fills the film with contradictory dialogue and tight close-ups, leaving no room for his characters to hide. His directing of Colman and Buckley in their shared central role is undeniably the film’s greatest asset; the depth of character that Gyllenhaal draws from these two excellent leads, conveying their shared experience (they are after all playing the same person 20 years apart) while subtly reflecting Leda’s changes over time, makes the film the one of the best character studies of recent years. Memory.
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” a fellow college student says in one of Leda’s flashbacks, establishing a sort of guiding philosophy for the entire film. “The Lost Girl” is full of little details – peeled oranges, verses of Italian poetry, a stolen doll – that suggest this gracious attention, paid or unpaid, received or rejected. The film’s stark realism may put off viewers looking for a sense of closure, but Gyllenhaal’s attention to these women, troubled as they are, miserable as they are, ultimately makes the film an act of sincere and generous narration.
Danny Eisenberg grew up at Harvard and has been a Harvard Press film critic since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.