Olivia Colman dazzles in director Maggie Gyleenhaal’s superb directorial debut
The Lost Daughter
Starring Olivia Colman, Ed Harris, Dakota Johnson & Jesse Buckley
Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal
In theaters Dec. 17, 2021, and available Dec. 31 on Netflix
In his 1903 poem The Mask, the famed Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote about a woman who has something to hide. He implores her to take off her “mask” and reveal herself.
“I would find what’s there to find,” goes the poem and the poet. “Love or deceit.”
There’s love, and deceit, and even a reference or two to Yeats, in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s supremely impressive directorial debut, in a which a summer getaway to a Greek seaside resort triggers troubling motherhood memories for a middle-aged woman.
Olivia Coleman stars in this slow-burn psychological drama, a tale of a woman wearing a “mask” of her own. She’s Leda, a Cambridge college professor who arrives at the resort on the island of Spetses anticipating a relaxing, low-key vacation. But Leda’s interactions there on the beach with an attractive young wife and mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her daughter set a fateful chain of events into motion, one that stirs up painful flashbacks for Leda about raising her own two daughters.
We learn about Leda gradually. She’s reserved and refined, outwardly a model of decency and decorum. She can be pleasant and charming. But she can also be stubborn, snappy, curt and even cold. Something’s going on with Leda, but what is it? And which Leda is the real Leda? Which one is wearing the mask?
It’s not an easy question to answer, as the plot weaves through incidents and events that include a missing little girl, her lost dolly, and Leda’s flirtations with both the college-student cabana boy (Paul Mescale) and the resort’s leathery American expat caretaker (Ed Harris).
In throwbacks to Leda’s past (where she’s superbly played by Jesse Buckley), we watch her struggling to balance her budding scholastic career—working from home translating comparative literature—with being a wife and a mom. Sex with her amorous husband (Jack Farthing) isn’t very fulfilling for her, and though she obviously loves her two little ones, she clearly prefers the academic world more than domestic life. Tenderness with her daughters at one moment can become a brittle battle of wills, a knotted tangle of frayed nerves. At a workshop event in London, she has a fling with a professor (Stellan Sarsgaard) and then comes home with a shocking announcement.
Present-day Leda and Nina strike up a tentative friendship, but it’s fraught with tensions. The sea itself, where the resort’s guests congregate every day, can be both idyllic and vaguely menacing. Nina’s thug-like in-laws create an atmosphere of dread and possibly danger, and Leda harbors a secret—and a certain stolen object—that threatens to bring everything crashing down around her.
Gyllenhaal has acted in nearly 50 films and TV shows including HBO’s The Deuce, the 2008 Batman blockbuster The Dark Knight, and Crazy Heart, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. She doesn’t make an appearance here, but her experience and confidence are evident behind the camera as she spins the story (based on the novel of the same name) with intimacy, intensity and a sense of tightly wound nuance, and lets her outstanding cast burrow into its characters.
The actor-turned-director gives us hints of the unpleasantries we’ll eventually discover when Leda settles into her room at the resort, inspecting the bowl of fresh-looking fruit that’s been set out for her and seeing that it’s rotten underneath. Leda is awakened one night by the buzzing of a big cicada, which has flown into her open window and landed on her pillow. Repulsed, she tosses out the bug and burrows deeper into her blankets.
There’s something unsettling on the underside of The Lost Daughter, and something is certainly bugging Leda.
The movie belongs to Colman, who’s already become an Oscar front-runner for her master-class performance here as a woman, and a mother, whose conflicts run deep; she might easily add another trophy to her Emmy (for The Crown) and her Academy Award (Best Actress for The Favourite). And Buckley—who starred in the most recent season of TV’s Fargo, in the miniseries Chernobyl, and in the mind-bending movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things—provides emotional heft to the aching backstory.
The Lost Daughter is challenging, as it brings up some uncomfortable truths not typically addressed by mainstream Hollywood. “I’m an unnatural mother,” Leda says at one point, capping the movie’s prickly stance that not all women embrace motherhood equally—and there’s more than one way a daughter, or anyone else, can become “lost.”
As any mom knows, parenting can be hard, trying work. Raising kids isn’t always a picnic, and it’s not a job everyone is prepared to do, wants or chooses. And almost anyone can have storms raging underneath a seemingly calm surface—like the sea to which Leda is inexplicably, repeatedly drawn—that they keep hidden, masked and unknowable to the world.
Colman’s riveting performance in The Lost Daughter is a powerful, tour-de-force potrayal of the conflicts of parenting—and what happens when the mask finally falls away, revealing what’s there to find.