Leda Caruso is a comparative literature professor, vacationing on a Greek island. Now 48, she is herself something of a comparative study: English, of Italian descent, living in Cambridge (the one on this side of the Atlantic), with two grown daughters, who live in England.
We never do find out why Leda is vacationing alone, though Olivia Colman’s performance conveys a sense of someone whose innate guardedness in no way means that she’s afraid to act on her own. Still, one wonders: If her eyes weren’t so sad, would she wear such large sunglasses?
We see Leda’s willingness to go her own way in flashbacks to her as a young mother. Jessie Buckley gives such an alert, radiant performance — what a tight, smirky smile she has — you quickly forget that Buckley and Colman don’t look all that much alike. This isn’t an issue, since they share something more important: a sustaining inwardness. Earlier this month, the Boston Society of Film Critics gave Buckley its award for best supporting actress in 2021. It was a good choice.
“The Lost Daughter” is based on Elena Ferrante’s novel. It’s the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s filmmaking debut. She wrote the script as well as directed. Her direction is unemphatic without ever being tentative, and she’s made a film with a relaxed, easy rhythm — but not too easy. In a keeping-it-in-the-family touch, Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard, turns up in a showy role as a literature professor who consequentially meets young Leda. How showy? He recites Yeats’s poem “Leda and the Swan” in Italian.
Gyllenhaal’s fondness for handheld camera and tight framing makes “The Lost Daughter” feel quite intimate. Much of the film is set outdoors (it was filmed on the island of Spetses), and thanks to that Aegean light the exteriors are lovely to look at. Nonetheless, the movie is like a chamber drama. It’s not just Leda who’s defined by a fundamental inwardness.
Leda’s encounters with others on the island are limited, but she does have them. She hits it off with Will (Paul Mescal), an attendant at the resort. A caretaker, played by a nicely weathered Ed Harris, is a bit sweet on her. The encounter that matters most is with a crass American family from Queens. “They’re bad people,” Will warns her.
Throughout the film, there’s a vague sense of menace, of emotion being somehow off. Clearly, that has something to do with the family, but maybe not as much as it might initially seem. Blame is never in short supply in either life or “The Lost Daughter.” “I’m mean,” Leda says to the caretaker. He thinks she’s kidding. Leda can be many things, but a kidder isn’t one of them.
The lost daughter of the title belongs to the Queens family. She briefly goes missing from the beach, and it’s Leda who finds her. This leads to a friendship of sorts between Leda and the little girl’s mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson). Yet hovering over their relationship is a small malicious act that Leda commits. It’s quite inexplicable, actually, and that inexplicability weakens the movie. “I was just playing,” she later explains. Yet this is someone as much given to playfulness as she is to kidding.
The bond between Leda and Nina, such as it is, has to do with motherhood. The flashbacks to Leda with her daughters, 5 and 7, are both rich and unsettling. As much as she loves them, they oppress her. “I felt like I’d been trying not to explode,” Leda, looking back, explains to Nina, “and I exploded.” She was a lost mother and perhaps remains one. That uncertainty is some of what’s best about “The Lost Daughter” but also what’s most frustrating.
THE LOST DAUGHTER
Written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal; based on the novel by Elena Ferrante. Starring Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson. At Kendall Square; starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 31. 121 minutes. R (sexual content, nudity, language)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.