Adapted from a novel by Elena Ferrate, Maggie Gyllenhaal, as both the writer and the director, has decisively delivered a stellar feature film debut that is as rich and intense as anything I have seen this year. Her command of the environment and the emotional space has a disturbingly strong power, slapping hard into our soul like that object that falls from the sky and bruises the back of the main character. We feel that same sting as we study the focus of this story, a complicated woman named Leda, played to perfection by Olivia Colman (“The Crown“; “Fleabag“; “The Favourite“). The psychological drama of Leda is held tight, focusing within two slices of her timeframe giving us a full framed upheaval that feels etched in a type of sadness and anger that hypnotizes. The film steadfastly displays an expert performance that registers, marveling at the artistry as she is expertly assisted, most fascinatingly by her cohort, the magnificent Jessie Buckley (“Judy“; West End’s Cabaret). Buckley delivers a complex addition to Colman’s creation by giving the younger version of that same person a presence that is both irresistible and upsetting to watch. That remembered past is both triggering, and enlightening, and with those two powerhouse actors digging in deep to this history, and having the director with the patience to let it unravel slowly over a tense moment of time, the outcome is as magnificently stylish as it is uncomfortable and destabilizing.
Set on an idyllic Greek island somewhere in the Meditteranian, Colman’s British academic arrives in the night to an expansive vacation home for a solo work holiday. With the property manager played elegantly by Ed Harris (“Pollock“) leading us into the space, the lighthouse effects that invade the villa set the tone almost instantly. It warns us of troubled waters up ahead, and Leda is blind to rottenness of what’s in store. There will be no smooth sailing here, and much will be churned up from the depths by the crashing of waves within. This Yorkshire-born professor of comparative literature at Harvard will not be getting the still watered hot summer’s break she has come all this way for, and although Lyle, the expatriate American played well by graceful Harris is there to help her get what she needs, history will not be forgotten in the blue waters at the beach. There will be a reckoning, but for what, we are not quite sure.
Leda just wants to relax at the beach, take in the sun reading and making notes from the stacks of books she has carted with her. That is until the peacefulness of the beach is disrupted by a very loud and domineering band of Americans who take over the shore as if they owned every grain of sand present. It’s jarring and annoying, these people, for Leda and for us. But the energy in that sea air has been dangerously charged and changed with their chaotic arrival, particularly the very young mother, Nina, played impeccably well by Dakota Johnson (“The Social Network“), her young fussy daughter who can’t be quieted, and an intrusive and pushy woman by the name of Callie, aggressively played to the hilt by Dagmara Dominczyk (“Rock Star“). Callie doesn’t abide by personal boundaries, pushing and probing anyone or anything that doesn’t fall into line, and Leda has no intention of being, literally, moved out of the way by these people. In a series of highly uncomfortable moments, Leda stands firm, upright and on point, igniting some sort of fire between them that borders on dangerous. We feel the edginess, but we aren’t, once again, sure where the negativity is coming from, and if it is right or wrong. Luckily for Leda, at least for a moment or two, she stumbles on a way to be both an obvious hero and a sly villain.
Leda’s solitary energy is both compelling and completely relatable. Her discomfort and preferred isolation resonates as most honest but complicated. She’s obviously holding some sort of pain that is deeply emeshed in every cell of her being, hidden not that far from the surface. It is desperate and shows some sort of need to be seen, bubbling up for moments that tend to make matters worse. Her unsteady and duplicitous actions defy logic, while also being completely understandable, but not honorable. Colman makes her an intoxicatingly complex creature, one that we cautiously need to examine and be curious about. With some pretty spectacular visual help from the tight shots of Colman’s troubled face, we desperately want to understand what processes are happening inside her, just like all those who come into close proximity of her. No one understands, no matter how much they stare or probe. Not Callie who callously questions her without care. Nor Lyle who fails to hear the blunt signals to be left alone with her meal, that is until she has to be harsh. Leda doubles back and throws out another that doesn’t land, uncomfortably so, mainly because it doesn’t align with the first. Things strike her, literally, physically, and emotionally, leaving her stung, pale, or dizzy, depending on the force of gravity in the moment, giving her an edge of instability and recklessness that lingers, and not just with her. It hangs over us and the others, mainly in how they might react to the questionable or defiant behavior she enlists. The delicate balancing act is electric and tense, but magnificently orchestrated, thanks to the stellar work by the actors and the strong visuals of cinematographer/director of photography Hélèn Louvart (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always“).
With the past echoing up and inside Leda, the young American mother and her begin some sort of dance, that at some points seems so intimate that it becomes unnerving. Through part trauma and a current complication, their attachment to one another grows but not from an atmosphere of honesty or compassion. Leda has something hidden inside that, in some way aches to be released. It’s an emotional historical scar that is waterlogged and rotten. We are complicit and are unsure how good it will all be, as Leda is, in a way, a series of sexual and sensual contradictions that lash out and rise with unexpected ease. She flirts and gazes at the handsome young beach attendant Will, portrayed compassionately by the engaging Paul Mescal (“Normal People“) and finds herself richoching back and around Harris’ flirting presence. We never know what she really wants, even while she is in the midst of acting on an impulse. The layers are complicated, difficult to comprehend, but also solidly authentic and vibrant.
It’s an edgy wild performance, sun-baked in unvoiced sadness and trauma, and burnt from too much exposure to the harsh salty air of the island. Buckley’s performance is genius, expertly matching the demeanor while elevating the internal questions to emotional heights. In her role of young mother, Buckley plays out a framework in contrast to what is being said and shown on that Greek isle. The firestorm held within is wrapped up and around a construct that involves Professor Hardy, played enticingly by the wonderful Peter Sarsgaard (“Kinsey“) and the father of her two young daughters, portrayed beautifully by the compelling Jack Farthing (“Poldark“). The pairing of the two Ledas and their complex shared past is brilliant, and the balancing act sublime, teasing us into their combined emotional memories expertly, absolutely captivating us in a deep curiosity and a strong level of dread.
We know the sharp stab coming as we are shown the collapse early on. Teetering on the edge of something big, we pause, and until the causality of the collapse is depicted, we remain unsure, balancing on the edge wondering how this trembling and combustible energy will ignite. And almost more importantly, who the flames will burn. It’s one intense adventure, and even though the ending is almost too subtle to fill our desperate need to understand completely, the whole satisfies, leaving our skin almost stinging from the salt, and maybe slightly burnt from the harsh Greek sun. I couldn’t shake the qualities that Colman and Buckley unpack. It hung in the air long after the last scene and the dark decisions made, but the journey that we take alongside the anger and guilt of both Ledas never fails to engage. The expertise delivered in this film by all involved makes “The Lost Daughter” one intensely disturbing film that you will be glad you found it. Even in the disruption it will cause.
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