“I don’t mean to sound like your mother, but...” That well-known phrase implies all mums are the same and do nothing but mollycoddle – or interfere. Let’s just say this zeitgeisty drama – set to offer Olivia Colman yet another shot at Oscar glory – tells a different story.
The directing/writing debut of the vivacious and nuanced actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, it’s an adaptation of a novel by Elena Ferrante. The book is ace and Gyllenhaal has kept pretty much all of the good stuff.
As in the novel, Leda (Colman; darkly hilarious), an academic in her late 40s, holidaying in Greece, becomes entangled in the affairs of a mafia-connected family. Leda is particularly drawn to the young mother in the group, Nina (Dakota Johnson; intense), who has a clingy, doll-fixated little daughter, Elena. It becomes clear that Leda has working class roots, is divorced and has two grown daughters. As she tells various characters, including a politely flirtatious student (Paul Mescal) and an older man who works on the island (Ed Harris; poetically frazzled), she found it hard to juggle parenthood with having a career. Flashbacks explore that ambivalence and the escape route Leda plumped for. In the present day, she makes weird choices re: Elena’s doll, and potters around, haphazardly offending people.
The film, like the book, offers sun, sea and sarcasm, as well as a dissection of misogyny, snobbery, ageism, crippling female guilt, everyday madness and the complex relationship between parents and children.
But Gyllenhaal brings her own stuff to the table. As well as changing the nationality of the characters (Leda, a Neapolitan in the book, now comes from Leeds) Gyllenhaal has made the heroine angrier. Ferrante’s Leda goes to the cinema and is horrified when a group of boys from the beach start making a rumpus. She tells them she’s going to call the police. In the film, she screams, “I’m going to cut up your little dicks and feed them to the birds!”
At moments like this, Leda sounds like Cassie from Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. Both characters are willing to take the fight to aggressive, cocky males. Both characters can be mean. Savage, even.
Other changes suggest Gyllenhaal’s not short of commercial savvy. Movies in which holidaying single women meet or think about buff men famously do well at the box office. and Gyllenhaal serves up a bunch of toned males, including Nina’s husband (short, in the book, with “a large belly” - not any more); the professor the young Leda has an affair with, played by Gyllenhaal’s gorgeous real-life husband, Peter Sarsgaard; and the father of Leda’s children, physically nondescript in the book and now, thanks to Jack Farthing, sorrowfully cute.
I’m not saying The Lost Daughter is the new Mamma Mia! but it has the potential to be a crossover hit. Colman, of course, is the real draw. The British actress hoovers up awards and gathers fans wherever she goes. It seems almost impossible that she’ll be able to improve on past performances and yet, every time, she does.
Jessie Buckley, as the young Leda, is also riveting, filmed, like all the characters, with immense tenderness by genius French cinematographer Helene Louvart (despite Americans dominating the cast list, Europeans and European culture are integral to what we see and hear).
Gyllenhaal has forged a powerful new myth. She and her whole team are legends.
121mins, cert 15
At the BFI London Film Festival on October 13, 14 and 16, and in cinemas from January 7