Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley never share a frame in “The Lost Daughter,” since they play the same character, Leda, a literature professor and translator, at different and equally challenging ages.
But for anyone who considers these two to be among our very best screen actors, as honest and exacting as they are supple and versatile, the satisfaction of seeing Colman and Buckley create different stages of the same life is enormous. Taken from Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, first published in Italian, “The Lost Daughter” is a triumph of adaptation for writer and first-time feature director Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her film, relocating the novel’s southern Italian setting to a Greek island, spins a subtle web of intrigue.
“Subtle,” however, doesn’t mean calm. Leda is not one of those reader- or audience-placating figures designed to cope with a couple of neatly spaced setbacks and then get on with the triumph-of-the-human-spirit part of the story. She’s more interesting and less predictable than that. Gyllenhaal’s film, one of 2021’s essential character studies, made its Netflix streaming premiere Friday, in the same trough (sorry, “platform”) where a mediocre agitproppy comedy starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence is currently sucking up all the oxygen. I mean, see them both; it’s your subscription. But see “The Lost Daughter.”
Leda arrives to her vacation destination alone, which, for her, is customary. She is in her late 40s. Early on, director Gyllenhaal and editor Affonso Goncalves flash an image of Leda’s younger self, played by Buckley, and one of her daughters. Also early on, Leda talks – frustratingly briefly – to one of her two now-grown (and unseen) daughters by phone. The reasons for their distance, geographic as well as familial, soon become clear.
Welcomed to the modest island resort by American caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris, pitch-perfect), Leda enjoys her solitude, and the occasional interaction with Lyle, who, like Leda, is a loner by temperament with grown children. Leda also meets a young Irish resort employee (Paul Mescal, equally good), whose life has yet to find a clear map.
Abruptly, things shift for Leda. The huge extended family that, for all intents and purposes, owns the place arrives en masse, most of them from New York City (Queens, to be exact). They’re related to the island villagers, who go back centuries. Initial interactions with Leda are frosty: She has no interest in giving up her spot on the beach, once she’s asked to do so by this boisterous family celebrating a birthday.
Leda’s eye is drawn especially to Nina (Dakota Johnson, in her best work yet), a young mother whose preteen daughter is a serious handful, and whose husband is a threat disguised as fierce devotion. Amid the family chaos on the beach one day, Nina’s daughter wanders off. Group panic ensues; Leda locates her, though the little girl’s cherished doll goes missing. Leda, we learn, has an idea about where it might’ve gone. Something – everything – in Nina’s frayed parental nerves touches a nerve within Leda.
The Leda we come to know in flashbacks is no one thing; she is, rather, the full, roiling mixture of sleep-deprived, edge-of-despair impulses contained, or not, in so many millions of parents, usually mothers. With her academic husband (Jack Farthing) continually distracted by work, the real work of child-rearing falls mostly to Leda. Years into her daughters’ demanding lives, she’s invited to a conference on W.H. Auden, where her own scholarly insights are praised from the stage by the star attraction, a charismatic, weaselly Auden scholar played, with great wit, by Peter Sarsgaard. The scene, not delineated in the novel, where Leda first meets Prof. Hardy, is priceless in its strategic acumen. The second this man declares Leda’s insights “thrilling,” twice, she knows she’s going to make good, for good or ill, on what she already has imagined for the two of them, alone.
Gyllenhaal’s adjustments to Ferrante’s novel aren’t structural, but they, too, are strategic. The Leda of the novel is more violently out of control in the flashback scenes; the movie’s version keeps the edges, but strikes a greater variety of chords. In the book, we learn more about Leda’s own childhood despair. Gyllenhaal’s only real misstep, I think, is reaching for a more unreservedly affirmative coda, too abruptly.
At various points in Ferrante’s book, Leda puts things a little more bluntly than Gyllenhaal’s adaptation favors, again for the better. “I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother,” the book’s Leda says, “the chain of mute or angry women I came from.” That’s a first-rate line, and many like it remain in Gyllenhaal’s screenplay. But her filmmaking instincts are shrewd in “The Lost Daughter,” shaving off as many of those lines as she keeps. Gyllenhaal’s work with her actors is quietly spectacular, and she takes the best of Ferrante’s fearlessness while letting Colman and Buckley unfold the character’s secrets through action and reaction.
Actors-turned-directors generally learn a lot along the way, watching how others work (or don’t) with performers. For years, on the other side of the camera, just like Rebecca Hall (”Passing”), Regina Hall (”One Night in Miami … ”) and other triumphant debut filmmakers, Gyllenhaal has kept a close eye on what brings out the best in a scene, and in a story worth telling, with morally imperfect, fully dimensional, persistently human characters. I suspect even a so-so adaptation of “The Lost Daughter” starring Colman and Buckley, with the same unerring supporting cast, would’ve likely been worth seeing.
As is, we don’t have to settle for so-so.