First a little girl goes missing, then her doll, in “The Lost Daughter,” a daring psychological drama in which what should have been an idyllic summer vacation on the Greek island of Spetses instead becomes a kind of overdue emotional workout for Olivia Colman’s character, Leda, who collapses on the beach, bleeding from her abdomen in the opening scene. How these two disappearances might build to such a dire fate is one of the film’s mysteries, though more compelling is why this woman reacts to the incidents as she does, shocked into confronting her own conduct as a wife and parent many years earlier.
“I’m an unnatural mother,” Leda confesses at one point, saying aloud that which women aren’t typically allowed to admit about motherhood — that such a precious gift can be an unwelcome burden for some, and that by extension, not everyone is cut out for the job — in a film that gives any who may have felt this way a rare sense of being seen. That acknowledgement, jagged and potentially confrontational though it may be, is first-time helmer Maggie Gyllenhaal’s offering to audiences accustomed to a more conventional depiction of the female experience — and also that of Italian author Elena Ferrante (“My Brilliant Friend”), who first put the unspeakable to paper in the tight but insightful novella from which “The Lost Daughter” was adapted.
Gyllenhaal recognized herself in Ferrante’s words, or so she has said, presumably much as Leda sees herself mirrored in the character of Nina (played by Dakota Johnson), simultaneously the same and unknowably different. As an actor, the “Sherrybaby” star has challenged conventional notions of what a “good mother” can be, but with this film, she delves even deeper into those waters, demonstrating that her instincts run as deep and unease-inducing behind the camera as they do on-screen.
It helps that Gyllenhaal — who doesn’t appear in the film but seeds aspects of herself among its female characters — has found two terrific surrogates in Colman and Jessie Buckley, who embody older and younger versions of the lead character, a language scholar who turns up on Spetses for a “working vacation.” Leda possesses the sort of intellect that never rests but is easily distracted, which made it difficult to multitask motherhood with her work as a translator of poetry when her children were young and attention-hungry. (An inspired match, Buckley plays the exasperated Leda in these suffocating flashbacks.)
Now in her late 40s and single, Leda does her best to slip into the laid-back atmosphere of the island, flirting with both the older handyman (Ed Harris) who manages her rental apartment and the handsome bartender (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) down by the beach. Leda likes to think she’s still got it, even if she has no overt intention of following through on either man’s attention.
She’s an amateur people-watcher, and while sunbathing one afternoon, she spots Nina, a stunningly attractive young mother accompanied by a disruptive clan of Mafia-like in-laws. It’s hard to know exactly what Leda might be thinking — that’s part of the film’s power, leaving just enough open for audiences to project their own interpretations. Is it envy or admiration that she feels? But she can’t look away; she’s practically indiscreet in her curiosity, a nosiness Colman intuitively conveys through her body language.
The movie is laced with flashbacks — unresolved guilt trips, really, still sharp enough to lacerate the fingertips when handled — which begin when Leda notices Nina. Something about observing this woman has triggered uncomfortable feelings in Leda, who goes out of her way to avoid small talk. Instead, she snaps briskly at strangers, wrapping her terse replies in a kind of combative barbed wire. All the better to maintain a wary distance, but also a clue that she might not be as strong as she believes.
One afternoon at the beach, instead of ingratiating herself to the family when given the chance, Leda risks upsetting Nina’s in-laws by refusing to surrender her spot. Good for her, Nina thinks. And yet, these people — who bristle with sinister entitlement — are not accustomed to being turned down. It would be unwise to make enemies of them. Then the little girl disappears, and Leda emerges a hero, for a time, by helping to locate her.
But the character’s no angel, as the movie gradually reveals, which makes Gyllenhaal’s choice to cast Colman all the more subversive: There’s something inherently agreeable in the actor’s persona, which reads as cheery and pleasant, whereas this role allows her to explore her inner monster. Even today, women are judged harshly by society for acting selfishly — for putting their careers before their kids, pleasure before partners. When adults give dolls to little girls, it is with the assumption that they will grow up to be responsible mothers. The conditioning begins early, but it doesn’t always stick. That symbolism isn’t lost on Ferrante, nor is it lost in translation by Gyllenhaal.
At the risk of revealing too much about Leda’s past, Peter Sarsgaard (the director’s real-life husband) factors into some of the Buckley scenes, giving Gyllenhaal the chance to show a smoldering, seductive side of the actor never before captured on film. An intense sapiosexual attraction arises, so strong that Leda can still conjure the intensity of it all these years later. As Leda’s memories come to occupy a greater part of the film, it becomes clear that she’s still haunted by the impact of her much-earlier actions.
Through it all, Gyllenhaal assumes an unfussy, practically invisible non-style that conveys the essential (like that missing doll, visible in the background of a key scene) while privileging the performances. Working with French DP Hélène Louvart, she trusts in her ensemble, giving them rich reams of subtext to play, rather than putting words in their mouths, although there are some lines viewers may feel as if they’ve been waiting forever to hear, as when she tells Nina, “Children are a crushing responsibility” — permission to be imperfect, as it were. Even mothers make mistakes.