CALLERI: A woman reflects on past events in ‘The Lost Daughter’

Olivia Colman is a vacationer in Greece facing personal problems in “The Lost Daughter.” (Yannis Drakouldis / Netflix)

A British woman named Leda Caruso is relaxing on a small beach on a Greek island. She is enjoying her solitude and the quiet.

Suddenly, her peaceful reverie is disrupted by a large and boisterous family. To some observers, they might seem to be a happy group of people ready for some sunshine and surf. To Leda, they are an immediate nuisance. She enjoys traveling alone and being alone.

As if the disruption isn’t enough, a pregnant woman named Callie, who’s with the family, approaches Leda and asks her to move over so they can spread out. Leda gives her a look of annoyance and says: “no.” The woman stares at her in disbelief.

This is how “The Lost Daughter,” which stars an extraordinary Olivia Colman as Leda, carefully swings into its story. The movie, which is on Netflix, is based on a novel by Elena Ferrante and is written and directed by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. The film is a psychological drama, which proceeds with an aura of mystery and explores the complex, often joyously wonderful, sometimes exceptionally difficult, world of motherhood.

Gyllenhaal comes from a filmmaking family. Her mother is screenwriter-director Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal and her father is director and poet Stephen Gyllenhaal. Both her husband and brother are actors, Peter Sarsgaard and Jake Gyllenhaal, respectively.

Ferrante’s novel, published in 2006, takes place in southern Italy, but Gyllenhaal has shifted the setting to Greece. The intruding family is from the New York City borough of Queens, and they have a long association with the small island. Leda has no way to avoid them.

What propels “The Lost Daughter” is a keen understanding of the normal intensity caused by the close quarters that exist at any resort. Guests will generally keep seeing the same other guests. What makes the movie exceptional is how Leda becomes connected to a member of the new visitors and how this relates to her own complicated life.

When Leda, who is in her late-forties and is a college literature professor and translator, arrived, she was greeted by a friendly old-timer named Lyle, who is the caretaker of the resort. Leda finds him interesting. We get a sense there may even be a wistful hint of a romantic interlude. Ed Harris delivers an enjoyable twinkly and entertaining performance as Lyle. Leda also warms to Will (Paul Mescal), a courteous and helpful young man who works at the resort.

However, the film is not about intrusions on the beach and drinks after dark with an off-beat fellow who knows the secrets the resort holds.

Rather, it’s about Leda’s own secrets. There’s something dark, something foreboding controlling her personality and thoughts. The first clue comes early. The new family is celebrating a birthday. Callie, the pregnant woman who asked Leda to move, offers her a piece of birthday cake. It’s a lovely gesture. A peace offering. Her husband Toni seems the more menacing sort.

Recognizing that there are children about and that Callie is apologetic and seems to be sincere, Leda accepts the cake, but does say: “Children are a crushing responsibility. Happy birthday.”

That sentence opens the door to Leda’s psychological mindset, and the movie roars into high gear.

Leda develops a “vacation” friendship with Nina (well-acted by Dakota Johnson), who is another member of the visiting family. She has a three-year-old daughter. The little girl goes missing only briefly, and in the chaos of searching for her, the child’s beloved doll is lost. The section regarding the whereabouts of the doll is a part of the story that I believe should not be discussed until the movie has been seen. Knowing what happened and how it plays out is a signature dimension of the story.

Director Gyllenhaal beautifully guides the audience through the second half of her powerful film as she intensifies the focus on Leda, about whom we learn much more.

All of the symbolism and subtext about the expectation of women as mothers and the ugly belief that women who do not have children are making a mistake rises to the fore. This is, in fact, a potent cinematic exploration of women and motherhood.

In the present, Leda seems lost and forlorn. She does have children. Two daughters, now adults. And the raising of them caused her great conflict.

Flashbacks bring us into that realm. She has goals for herself, and she wishes her husband Joe would be more forthcoming with helping around the house. She’s not a pretentious intellectual, but rather a woman determined to succeed in academia, yet another multi-layered world of bias against females. Why do men get a pass? Why do women get the scrutiny?

These flashbacks reveal a house that probably wasn’t really a home. Leda had an affair with a professor (exceptionally well-played by Gyllenhaal’s husband Peter), and for a brief period, she left her family. Her current relationship with her children is cold. Telephone calls are perfunctory.

Additional acting praise goes to Jessie Buckley as the young adult Leda, Dagmara Dominczyk as Callie, Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Toni, and Jack Farthing as Joe. The movie has superior production values. Its beautiful cinematography is by Helene Louvart.

Gyllenhaal, who also produced “The Lost Daughter,” has made an assured directing and writing debut. She received the best screenplay award at the recent Venice Film Festival. Dramas for adults are rarely better than this.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night & Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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