Maggie Gyllenhaal is probably best known as Jake Gyllenhaal’s older sister who literally plays this role as Elizabeth Darko in breakthrough film, Donnie Darko. Both actors started their careers at an early age in the ’90s, but it was Jake who literally took the lead with his sister Maggie becoming more adept in supporting roles. While Maggie’s titular role in Secretary opposite James Spader and performance in The Honourable Woman and Sherrybaby stand out, she’s best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Crazy Heart and turn in Christopher Nolan’s superhero game-changer The Dark Knight. There’s no denying Maggie Gyllenhaal’s talent, a generous actor who’s able to immerse herself in characters to the point that you often forget she’s acting. While accomplished and experienced, Gyllenhaal is a Hollywood wallflower in contrast with her brother’s illustrious career.
Having been given the nod by the Academy for her role in Crazy Heart, it must have come as some surprise that her return to the prestigious ceremony was as a filmmaker rather than an actor. Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Lost Daughter, the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel also landed two acting nominations. Lauded with praise for her self-assured direction, garnering a Golden Globe and debut awards, it seems as though Gyllenhaal may have discovered her true calling. Directing two modern greats in Olivia Colman (The Favourite) and Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose) in a role she may have considered for herself on either side of the flashback, The Lost Daughter is a bold and haunting psychological drama of many shades.
The film centres on a woman who begins to confront the troubles of her past. Taking a beach vacation in Greece, she projects her own experience as a mother onto a mother-daughter relationship that she witnesses from behind sunglasses from the comfort of her resort beach lounger. Just as Leda is beginning to unwind, only interrupted by a charming young resort employee, her idyllic holiday is interrupted by a rowdy family who upend her peace and quiet. Gyllenhaal’s film starts like a mystery thriller as vague details and uncomfortable social interactions take a dark turn and escalate intrigue and suspense.
Being an actor, Gyllenhaal’s empathetic direction enables her to siphon the best from her seasoned ensemble, including an unrecognisable Dakota Johnson, doting Ed Harris, typed Jack Davenport and her husband Peter Sarsgaard. She uses the frame to create energy, using close-ups in a refreshing manner whilst cultivating an unsettling intimacy. This strange tension remains, feeding into Leda’s interactions with her landlord, the cabana boy and the disruptive family as the spirited woman wrestles with her past and present. Playing like two separate films with the same tonal quality, Jessie Buckley makes a fine younger Leda, taking a supporting role as an “understudy” to Olivia Colman in order to bridge the character’s before and after. While The Lost Daughter trades on suspense, the beach vacation thriller aspect is more of a Trojan horse in the way it ushers in Leda’s deepest regrets surrounding her children’s upbringing by way of a doll and precious mother-daughter relationship.
“… but when I ask you to water the plants?”
Veering into the realm of arthouse, The Lost Daughter operates more according to atmosphere and mood than paint-by-numbers storytelling. It’s easy enough to know who each character is and their connection to Leda but the flashback and flashforward hybridisation of two distinct worlds compounds the choppy narrative. Being a psychological drama, it’s driven by this dark headspace but there’s a feeling that something’s been lost in translation. Unfortunately, The Lost Daughter begins to alienate when it comes to entertainment value and diffuses the linear storytelling to the point of confusion.
While there’s a constant threat for the story to overflow into something more sinister, it’s mostly concerned with its character’s inner turmoil and underlying social commentary over Hitchcockian thrills. The Lost Daughter revolves around powerful themes linking back to parenthood and the lingering shadows around duty, guilt and regret. A female-led drama, the story returns to gender politics, exploring a spectrum of Leda’s mostly awkward social engagements with a few flickers of holiday romance.
While overlong and increasingly difficult to follow, The Lost Daughter is an impressive debut for Gyllenhaal that crests on her bold direction, suspense-building and excellent co-leads in Colman and Buckley. Teasing with genre, tightrope walking with its non-linear storytelling, leveraging evocative themes and getting the best from her fine ensemble, The Lost Daughter has many layers that ultimately serve it well. Having proven herself with a strong directorial debut, it’s exciting to see what Gyllenhaal decides to tackle next.
The bottom line: Intriguing