It’s one of the oldest Hollywood clichés, an actor saying ..but what I really want is to direct. As such, it sort of follows that so many actors’ actual attempts at directing can be boiled down to one desperate plea: please take me seriously!
That The Lost Daughter feels distinctly not like that is part of what makes it stand out. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has never exactly been a conventional actress (for the love of God, check her out in the brilliant final season of The Deuce), turns out not to be a conventional director either. The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal’s debut for Netflix, adapted by Gyllenhaal from Elena Ferrante’s 2015 novel, feels genuinely like an attempt to use her clout to tell a unique story, to scratch an itch that most of contemporary cinema simply can’t or hasn’t. If there’s anything from Gyllenhaal’s acting career that feels recognizable in the way she directs, it’s that same seeming lack of vanity. She doesn’t seem to be begging to be taken seriously; just doing her thing.
It helps that Gyllenhaal has cast another brilliant, unconventional actress as her lead: Olivia Colman, as a professor named Leda on extended holiday in Greece. You spend most of the movie wondering just what the hell is this lady’s whole deal is. Leda is somehow slightly mousy, fabulously awkward, and surprisingly brassy all at once, whether she’s fielding advances from her rental’s local super, Lyle, played by Ed Harris, or tersely refusing to change seats to accommodate a large family of vacationers from Queens. (At this point it feels like Ed Harris has been pulling off “wizened yet oddly youthful” for 40 years).
Leda is the very definition of an “odd bird,” but always in relatable or nearly-relatable ways; never in the conventionally-unconventional, try-hard characterizations we often see in indies and art films, where being sad, sullen or a victim is considered pure poetry. Leda is more like an arthouse Larry David, her eccentricities dialed one more degree towards pathological.
In service of helping us understand… just what the hell this lady’s whole deal is, we have flashback sequences, starring Jessie Buckley (Fargo, Taboo) as the young Leda. Clearly one of Gyllenhaal’s gifts as a director is in finding actresses as singular as herself. In Buckley’s storyline, we see Leda as a young mum, chafing against the prison of motherhood, trying to get her husband to see her as a sexual being while attempting to get the world to reckon with her as a real writer and translator. She seems to kill two birds with one stone when she meets a fellow writer played by Peter Sarsgaard at a conference, who seems thrilled both by her talent and her body.
Back in the present, Leda hides a doll from a little girl, and just when you think she’s about to give it back, the doll shows up again and again as a sight gag somewhere in her apartment. If they gave an Oscar for macguffins, the doll would win in a walk. It’s a sign of a good art movie that it isn’t afraid to be hilarious, and Olivia Colman belongs to that vanishly small group of actors — Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Rose Byrne, maybe a couple more — who can do broad comedy and almost imperceptibly subtle comedy with equal facility, and shift seamlessly from every shade in between.
Colman, Buckley, Sarsgaard; I defy you to assemble a more perfect cast. Dakota Johnson is better than she’s ever been as Leda’s unconventional frenemy, Nina (they both seem to sense that the other is a version of themselves at a different age). And yet if there is a flaw in The Lost Daughter, it’s that after a solidly entertaining and occasionally very funny movie, it gives us an ending that tries to substitute symbolism for resolution. There’s a recurring flashback involving Leda eating oranges (she likes to take the peel off in one piece) and then in the finale, boom, there’s an orange. Symbolically, I can sort of see what Gyllenhaal was going for here, with young Leda noting that it’s called a “navel” orange because of the little belly button on the bottom.
Get it? That’s the place where the mother attaches to child in the womb! It’s the very connection with which Leda struggles! Of course, understanding that bit of lateral thinking doesn’t especially improve the linear conclusion of the story, which is ambiguous to an unsatisfying degree. It’s not that we needed Leda explained, just some basics of time and place. It’s also a bit of a shame that a movie that was otherwise very much not a “watch me do some art” film ends on its most “Look at me doing an art” scene. It’s disappointing, but not enough to negate all the great things that came before. Flaws aside, Gyllenhaal genuinely feels like a new voice as a storyteller, and not just an actor stretching, which is a rare thing.