Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ‘the Lost Daughter’ Is a Complex Filmmaking Debut

  • Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut film “The Lost Daughter” premiered at Venice on Thursday. 
  • “The Lost Daughter” is an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Italian writer Elena Ferrante.  
  • The film has an A-list cast including Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson.  

The first sign to look out for while watching the film of a first-time director is how well they can tell their story visually, without relying on dialogue or baggy exposition. A director who displays good visual literacy is a director who has studied and respects the art form. The second sign is whether the director can convey the story in a way that is both compelling and entertaining. 

The search for these “tell” signs is intensified when the first time director is a former actor, specifically of Hollywood films like Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is best known for her measured performances in popular movies like 2002’s “Secretary,” Christopher Nolan’s 2008 superhero film “The Dark Knight,” and 2009’s “Crazy Heart.”

As a viewer, you instinctively look to uncover whether this new directing gig is a sham, merely part of said Hollywood actor’s scheme for industry domination or a cheap money grab. We want to know that we are being handled with care and we are spending our money on an actor-turned-director who respects our time and intelligence. 

Following the debut of her new film “The Lost Daughter” at the Venice film festival, it is with great pleasure that I report Gyllenhaal is not only a director worth your time and money but a director of great skill and wit. Her debut behind the camera is a clever and complex tale that juggles themes of motherhood and loss while mulling around the thrilling milieu of a contemporary psychological crime caper with an ultra A-list cast. 

What’s Hot: Maggie Gyllenhaal has composed a taut, thrilling world around her A-list cast 

A picture of Olivia Colman in "The Lost Daughter."

Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter.”

Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix

“The Lost Daughter” is a drama based on the best-selling novel by Italian author Elena Ferrante. Gyllenhaal adapted the novel herself, and

announced at the beginning of August that it had acquired the rights to the film. Netflix will give “The Lost Daughter” a limited theatrical run from December 1 before making it available for streaming on December 31. 

This isn’t the first time that a Ferrante novel has been adapted for the screen. HBO has produced two seasons of “My Brilliant Friend” based on Ferrante’s best-selling series of the same name. “The Lost Daughter” shares a few similarities with “My Brilliant Friend” — namely, a beautiful locale. The film is set on the coast of an unnamed Greek island where Leda (Olivia Colman) has come to vacation. Leda is a middle-aged academic. She works at Harvard (she never plainly discloses this but she often proudly remarks that she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she says is “near Boston”) and her area of expertise is comparative literature, specifically Italian literature. 

Soon after arriving on the island, Leda spots a young mother called Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter on the beach. The pair are part of a raucous and potentially criminal extended family who strut around the island. But for some reason, Leda is consumed with Nina and her daughter. She watches them on the beach, stalks them around the town (one afternoon she even spots Nina cheating on her husband with a local worker played by Paul Mescal), and in a hazy fit one day, she steals Nina’s daughter’s beloved toy doll. And it is through this doll that “The Lost Daughter” finds its anchor. 

Leda’s daughter had a similar doll in her youth, which prompts her to revisit some of the difficult and unconventional choices she made as a mother and their consequences for herself and her family. You see, Leda isn’t a good mother. By her own admission, she’s selfish — in a series of flashback scenes where she is portrayed by a brilliant Jessie Buckley, we see her leave her children, start an affair with a senior academic (played by Gyllenhaal’s real-life husband Peter Sarsgaard), and she’s violent towards her young daughters. But this isn’t because she’s an inherently bad person or the “villain” in this story. Her life is complex, she must balance her burgeoning academic career, and the specific desire for perfection and dedication that that career demands with being a young mother and supportive partner to her husband (played by Jack Farthing).

Like all young academics, she also has money issues and she doesn’t have a support system to fall back on — her own mother struggled to provide. Or that’s what Gyllenhaal attempts to convey with her muddied narrative. And the fact that I lay these thoughts out here perhaps means she was successful (some serious interior work had to be done to justify a narrative based solely on a middle-aged woman stealing a child’s plastic toy).

You don’t watch this film wanting to root for Leda but you don’t want her to suffer either. Instead, the film conjures what I believe to be the most powerful emotion cinema can evoke: empathy. You empathize with Leda’s desire to succeed, her reluctance to settle, and, in theory, her decision to abandon her family because these are all emotions we have felt at some point in our lives. It is only in Hollywood cinema that these complexities are regularly sidelined for easy conclusions. But that is a habit Gyllenhaal thankfully refuses to indulge in and her debut is all the more powerful because of it. 

Bottom Line: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Olivia Colman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dakota Johnson at "The Lost Daughter" photocall at the 78th Venice International Film Festival.

Olivia Colman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Dakota Johnson at “The Lost Daughter” photocall at the 78th Venice International Film Festival.

Marc Piasecki/Getty Images for Netflix

At the press conference for “The Lost Daughter” at the Venice film festival on Thursday, one of the festival’s curators revealed that the main reason the festival team decided to invite the film to the Lido for its premiere was that they were so stunned by the confidence and clarity of Gyllenhaal’s vision. In response, Gyllenhaal talked about the nerves she felt before deciding to step behind the camera for the first time.

It is here between the sweet spot of clear, singular talent and uncompromising honesty that “The Lost Daughter” is most interesting. My only hope now is that “The Lost Daughter” is actually seen by audiences — preferably in a theater — and is not lost in what will be a busy fall release schedule specifically at Netflix (the streamer alone is releasing new films by Jane Campion, Adam McKay, and Paolo Sorrentino) because Gyllenhaal’s debut is not only a thrilling watch but it is a story I believe the world needs. 

“The Lost Daughter” will hit theaters for a limited theatrical run on December 1 before becoming available to stream on December 31. 

Grade A+ 

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