When Olivia Colman’s Leda stumbles and collapses onto the pebbly sand of a twilit Greek beach in the very opening scene of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s uncannily accomplished, indefinably disturbing and deeply affecting directorial debut “The Lost Daughter,” she is wearing white. This is not unusual for Leda, nor heavily symbolic; it’s a blouse and skirt, not a wedding dress or a shroud. But as the title appears boldly over her prone form, and Dickon Hinchliffe’s melodic, throwback score first plinks out like the never-resolving piano intro to an old pop song, and if you know your Yeats, there’s a chance you might think of some lines of his which talk about a staggering girl and then go “And how can body, laid in that white rush/But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?”
Yeats’ poem, “Leda and the Swan” — from which we later learn that comparative literature professor Leda got her name — is a retelling of the Greek myth of the rape of the Spartan Queen by Zeus who appeared to her in the guise of a swan. “The Lost Daughter,” based on one of Elena Ferrante’s lesser-known books and so electrically adapted for the screen by Gyllenhaal that it feels like it was born a movie, has almost nothing to do with that story, except perhaps for the way it is a tale of violation clad in language so sensual and peculiar that the telling of it becomes a thing of beauty itself. Gyllenhaal’s film is a story of self-ascribed transgression and of shame buried and turned bitterly inward, and it too, is made with such alertness to the power of cinematic language – particularly that of performance – that even as you feel your stomach slowly drop at the implications of what you’re watching, you cannot break its spreading sinister spell.
The performance in question, it will surprise no one who’s been to the movies in the last five years to hear, is given by Olivia Colman, on whom so many superlatives have already been rightly showered that it’s genuinely hard to think of one that doesn’t sound like a cliché. But her Leda is something quite extraordinary even within her already extraordinary catalogue: it’s difficult to imagine that anyone else would be able to take this impossible role, in all its unlikeliness and unlikeability, in all its witchy unpredictability and completely staid normalcy and make it seem not only plausible but more real for all its contradictions. Leda, a 48-year-old mother of two daughters (Bianca is 25 and Martha is 23, as she constantly telling her new acquaintances), is outwardly the very model of ordinary, respectable, perhaps slightly invisible middle-aged womanhood. She has come on holiday alone but for some work, to this secluded place, which is shot by the brilliant Hélène Louvart in gently jittery handheld, so that its prettiness is merely incidental and its coolness despite the hot sun feels palpable. And for the time being at least, Leda is enjoying her indulgent solitude like a mid-morning Cornetto.
So it’s with the entirely relatable annoyance of anyone who’s ever found a quiet spot on a nice beach only to have a crowd of rowdy kids settle in right next to them, that Leda reacts when her little oasis of calm is invaded. The first voice she hears is that of Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), the pregnant, strident scion of a dubiously wealthy Queens family who summer here every year in a rented pink villa on the outskirts of their ancestral village. But the first person she really notices is Callie’s sister-in-law, the gorgeous, lissome Nina (Dakota Johnson), as she nuzzles her daughter Elena and plays with her in the sparkling surf. Already there is something a little off – too rapt, too attentive – in the way Leda observes Nina. It’s a strange connection that cues the revelation of other weird undercurrents that eddy beneath Leda’s placid surface: her dizzy spells, her sudden stubbornnesses, her cold-then-hot-then-cold reaction to the faint but unmistakable advances made on her by Lyle (Ed Harris) her holiday home’s caretaker, and the friendly flirtations of Will (Paul Mescal) the young student working his summer at the beach bar.
Nina and Leda finally talk after Elena, the first of many lost daughters in “The Lost Daughter” goes missing and Leda finds her. We’ve already had the beginnings of Leda’s larger story in a few flashbacks to the time when her daughters were around Elena’s age and when she herself was Jessie Buckley – who despite a physical dissimilarity that Gyllenhaal makes no crass attempt to hide, has a such a synergy of body language and mannerism with Colman, that their performances became one palimpsest, the lines of one showing faintly through onto the other: Buckley an echo of the past for Colman; Colman a ghost of the future for Buckley. These scenes start off as memories of her closeness to her kids but soon morph into more painful reminiscences about all the times she resented them, especially little Bianca, for demanding more of her than she wanted to give. In one such, in a sequence that would be heavy-handed if Gyllenhaal’s touch wasn’t so assured, Buckley’s Leda reacts angrily when Bianca defaces Leda’s own favorite childhood doll. Seldom has the inherent creepiness of giving little girls miniaturized baby-shaped mannequins on which to mimic motherhood been so evocatively mined as it is here.
But even after some fraught flashbacking has introduced notes of unease, Leda could still be just what she seems to Nina: a not especially interesting but useful ally who sympathizes with Nina’s own frustrations with her kid and her controlling family. But then Leda does an inexplicably perverse thing. Having returned Elena to her family, she steals the doll she earlier saw the little girl bite down on savagely, in response to a fight between her tempestuous parents. This tiny, deeply conflicted act – one that we’re never even sure that Leda herself understands – is the pebble in the shoe, the grit in the eye, the bug on the pillow of the rest of the film, unlocking levels of Leda’s fathomless psychology that are dark and troubling and horribly, awfully recognizable.
In every mother a sliver of ambivalence about motherhood; in every pretty doll’s mouth a worm. “How did it feel, to be away from your daughters?” asks Nina, expecting a reply full of angst and regret. The regret is there but the reply that comes – “It felt amazing,” says Leda – is the more honest because it is so unexpected. This is how Gyllenhaal has, with a blazing certainty that seems borderline miraculous in a first-time filmmaker, engineered “The Lost Daughter” to work, so that even though very little actually happens, the way that things don’t happen is somehow an ongoing, gripping surprise. The tension is born of an uncertainty, in any given situation, over how Leda, so unforgettably embodied by Colman, will behave. The suspense is that of an orange being peeled in a long strip that seems like it must break at any moment. And it will surely strike the rawest of nerves in anyone – mother or not – who staggers through the world with the demeanor of an ordinary decent person, when all the while feeling the thump inside of her strange heart beating where it lies.
“The Lost Daughter” premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release it in theaters on Friday, December 17, and then on Netflix on December 31.