The Lost Daughter: Olivia Colman, Jesse Buckley and Paul Mescal find trouble in paradise

Maggie Gyllenhaal maintains a constant air of dread in her first film as a writer-director

The Lost Daughter
    
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Dagmara Dominczyk, Paul Mescal
Running Time: 2 hrs 2 mins

Based on the novel by Elena Ferrante, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s opening gambit as a writer-director is a brave charge at source material defined by flashbacks and far too many subplots.

For all of cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s sun-drenched visuals and the wildly starry cast, this is not an easy sell. The central character, a languages professor named Leda Caruso, as essayed by Olivia Colman at her crankiest, is hardly good company.

By the end of the first act, she has snapped at the helpful caretaker (Ed Harris) of her holiday home and scowled at anyone who dares to have fun at the beach. Pity the Greek resort to which she has decamped for an alleged “working holiday”.

When a dodgy, implausibly large family from New York sunbath and play in her orbit, Leda rudely dismisses them while fixating on one among their number, a pretty, struggling young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson). Leda’s obsession becomes more troubling when Nina’s daughter wanders off. Mercifully, Leda retrieves the child but holds on to the girl’s treasured doll for unknown, possibly spiteful reasons.


“Children are a crushing responsibility,” Leda tells Nina, with equally indecipherable motivations.

The doll-napping is one of many intriguing psychological puzzles that are slowly solved – or at least contextualised – in flashbacks to Leda’s own motherhood, a time when she struggled with maternal responsibilities, squabbling daughters, and academic ambitions.

The latter won out, as did a brief fling with a charismatic fellow poetry lecturer, played with just the right amount of sleaze by the director’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard. Jesse Buckley is terrific as the younger, exasperated “unnatural mother” even if her lack of physical resemblance to Colman can be distracting.

The multinational cast adds another crinkle. How did such a large American family get here? Is this Home Alone? Dakota Johnson and Dagmara Dominczyk, both fine actors, are far too sleek to pass as low-class molls. Paul Mescal is wasted in a subplot that adds a degree of menace before it peters out.

Against this, Gyllenhall maintains a constant air of dread, from the rotten fruit in the welcome basket of the opening scenes to the rowdy teens that disrupt Leda’s trip to the cinema. The director’s clever script meanwhile carefully probes at parental indifference, as both a relatable and monstrous feeling.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic