Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” is a chilling and unnerving psychological horror film brimming with dicey characters who are capable of deeply disturbing behavior. We keep holding our breath because it feels like something awful is about to happen — and our instincts might not be wrong.
“The Lost Daughter” is based on a 2006 novel by Elena Ferrante, but it has the confident intellectualism and verité vibe of a 1970s independent film, as we alternate between present-day events as a woman in her late 40s named Leda takes a holiday in Greece, and flashbacks to some 20 years ago, when Leda was a young academic and found herself pushed to the limits by the pressures of motherhood, marriage, career and outside temptation. The great Olivia Colman plays the pleasant-faced but blunt and no-nonsense Leda of today, while the wonderful Jessie Buckley is Leda’s younger self, and while their respective performances are singular and unique, we believe the harried and sometimes desperate young woman in the gauzy flashbacks eventually became that tightly wound and perhaps dangerously damaged middle-aged loner of today.
Leda is a divorced professor of Italian literature who arrives on an unnamed Greek island for a working holiday and finds the place relatively peaceful and quiet, just as she likes it — though there’s something intrusive and overly friendly about Lyle (Ed Harris), the American caretaker of her holiday rental, who has been overseeing the property for some 30 years. After a few days of reading on the beach and enjoying a harmless flirtation with an Irish seasonal worker named Will (Paul Mescal) who’s all charm and helpfulness, Leda’s respite is shattered by the arrival of a large, loutish, extended family of New Yorkers who come roaring onto the beach and immediately take over, urging Leda to move her chair elsewhere so she won’t intrude on their birthday party. Harumph! Leda was here first, and she’s not going anywhere.
We quickly discern this family might be involved in some shady dealings and they’re not used to anyone saying no to them — but Leda’s display of backbone draws the admiration of at least one family member: Dakota Johnson’s Nina, who is married to an ominous-looking bounder (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and at times seems overmatched when looking after her daughter — just as Leda felt overwhelmed and trapped when SHE was a young mother.
Nina’s older, pregnant sister-in-law, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), strikes up an uneasy alliance with Leda, as they bond over the responsibilities of motherhood. When Nina’s daughter goes missing, Leda becomes the hero when she finds her. But the girl’s doll disappears, and the child is REALLY connected to that doll, the family won’t rest until they find that doll — a doll Leda has stolen, and we’ll leave it at that.
Things get ever creepier and stranger on the island, with Lyle the caretaker and Will the seasonal employee darting in and out of the story, and the flashback sequences growing ever more intense, as young Leda finds herself drawn to a celebrated older professor (Peter Sarsgaard) and sees him as an escape hatch from the crushing drudgery of a stagnating marriage and two daughters who never, ever, EVER stop needing her attention.
This is the second time in the last two months one of our most interesting actors has made an impressive directorial debut, with “The Lost Daughter” coming on the heels of Rebecca Hall’s “Passing,” which mined very different territory but also included a plot thread about a character who is living a lie and continues to propagate that deceit even when the walls start closing in. At times “The Lost Daughter” is too self-indulgent and overwrought, especially in the flashback sequences when Leda’s children seem wildly out of control, at least from her point of view, and her inability and/or unwillingness to face her responsibilities and address the issues is brought home time and time and time again. We get it, we got it. Still, this is a well-crafted psychological drama with excellent performances and sure-handed direction from a fine actor who proves to be a gifted filmmaker as well.