Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a cold yet confident one

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Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

The greatest trick in the world pulled by all the women is the notion that being a mother is the end all/be purpose of their lives. Why is it that since they can give birth to children… ladies have to suddenly give up their lives? While the world would be lost without mothers, giving them freedom of choice would be a giant step in the right direction.

Leda (Olivia Colman) is one of the challengers of this particular formula, designed by whoever owned this rock first. A teacher and translator who just decided to take a quick vacation to Greece, the audience is presented with a woman in a mid-life crisis that nobody, not even her, can see coming. When a large family of outspoken New Yorkers rubs Leda wrong shortly into her trip, a bunch of painful memories comes flooding in.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “Lost Daughter”

Jewish actress Maggie Gyllenhaal choosing Elena Ferrante’s novel “The Lost Daughter” for her directorial debut was a bold step because you aren’t told how to feel about Leda—at any time during the movie. In a mainstream film, the viewer would be given a tutorial on her past and a short montage to catch us up with her troubles. The commercial edit would be apparent and recycled. There would be an Adele song thrown into the mix, and all would be well by minute 47 of the movie. Gyllenhaal, showing a confident eye behind the lens, wants to dig deeper.

When you have actresses like Colman and Jessie Buckley (playing a younger Leda) leading the charge, along with some fine support from Dakota Johnson and Ed Harris, a filmmaker’s job does get easier. Having one of the most gorgeous European settings also makes for a big supporting player. The raging waters and sandy beaches place Leda (and the viewer) in a pressure cooker-type cocoon for two hours, but it’s a balance of passionate surroundings and a complicated storyline that keeps ones invested throughout.

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As Leda retreats from the outside world after a particularly minor incident, her years as a young mother are pulled into the forefront of her mind. Like an old pest ripping healed-up wounds, this is where the movie requires something extra yet gets interesting.

Inside The Story

We don’t see outright abuse or terrible deeds from Buckley’s overmatched heroine; just tiny seams slowly coming apart. Her daughters are sweet and precocious, working part-time hours as loud and obnoxious–a setup that begins to beat Leda down. Flashing forward to Colman’s broken gaze and back to Buckley’s wired stare, Gyllenhaal overcomes the stillness trapped in a slow-moving tale.

The acting is top-tier, especially with Colman. She never lets us too close to Leda or her troubles, but we feel a strong undercurrent of warmth beneath the despair. The Academy Award-owning actress balances both shades of light in her performance. Buckley matches her restraint with full-blown power, once again turning a potentially dry role into something juicy. Harris has never looked more at ease than he has in the last five years of his film work.

Gyllenhaal definitely has the acting part down, but her directing should make for a nice co-pilot for the rest of her career. She has a Sofia Coppola understatement with the camera that I found appealing. Her next few films will get better and better, especially if she continues to take chances like “The Lost Daughter.”

Final Thoughts

I’ll be honest and admit it’s a colder kind of film. One that I made a second pass through in order to get a real grasp on. It’s not a woman coming to terms with her life and dancing on the shores of Greece. More like a woman who doesn’t need to put herself together, yet finally, come to terms with who she is and accept it completely. Every woman wasn’t meant to be a mom, and even the very good ones can admit it’s a struggle.

I’ve never bought into the idea that mothers have to be these 100% happy people all the time. With great power comes great responsibility, but that shouldn’t detach her from being human.

Did I love this movie? No, but its message and performances are liberating. Take or leave what Gyllenhaal and Ferrante are selling, but some respect and attention are in order. It may be a bitter film at times, but “The Lost Daughter” is a confident portrayal of unique female power.

“The Lost Daughter” opens at the Plaza Frontenac on Dec. 24, and streams on Netflix starting Dec. 31.