We’ve probably all been thinking it, so I’ll just come out and say it: Olivia Colman is on her way to becoming the next Meryl Streep.
Ever since her Oscar winning turn in The Favourite, she has been an unstoppable force. Whether it be on the small screen (I hear she’s great on The Crown and she was aces in last month’s Landscapers) or the big screen (she earned another Oscar nomination for the best movie of 2020, The Father), she has such a deft ability of giving her all to the most diverse of roles and sticking the landing every time, whether it be a royal lesbian, a loving daughter, a spunky cop (referring to her role from Hot Fuzz) or a kooky, tender murderous wife. Yet it’s her role in her latest film, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s thoroughly compelling The Lost Daughter, where she has found what I believe is her best performance so far.
The Lost Daughter is a film that held me in its grip the entire time. It’s a film with so much working on its side that the headlining tour de force of Colman sometimes feels like an added bonus. It’s a flawlessly acted, handsomely filmed, sharply written, and expertly crafted film that not only solidifies that Colman is a tremendous actress but also shows us that Gyllenhaal might be a dynamite filmmaker. This is only her first directorial feature but frankly you wouldn’t know it, because The Lost Daughter appears to be made with expert hands. It’s not necessarily flawless, but its strengths are really strong and it’s certainly the best of Netflix’s recent originals (The Lost Daughter- yay, Don’t Look Up– nay).
I could say that this is Colman’s film, and in ways it is- her performance is the centerpiece, and always keeps us engaged. Yet she isn’t necessarily carrying the film on its shoulders, because the other performances here are effective too. Nonetheless, Colman is in top form here as a fascinating, flawed woman with a troubled past. The film is a depiction of a woman haunted by her past, yet what makes the film intriguing is that we get a sense of who she was through who she currently is. Not just because the film (based on a novel I haven’t read) is told through flashbacks (with the younger version of Colman played magnificently by Jessie Buckley) but because her past self- loving but cold and distant- is also pretty close to her current self- cold and distant, but loving.
Colman stars as Leda, a loner who arrives in Greece with the intention of living in solitude for a while. She doesn’t really like people, she just likes to be alone, and she’s pretty blunt in her approach. Take a scene where Lyle (Ed Harris), the caretaker of the apartment she’s in, strikes up a conversation with her during dinner. There are a few scenes like this one in The Lost Daughter, that feel awkward and elicit discomfort, but purposely. The discomfort continues with the arrival of an Italian American family, who immediately disturb her peace and she has no problem telling them. With the arrival of this family though we do see her sort of open up a bit.
She takes a liking to local hottie Will (Paul Mescal). She socializes with Lyle. She even grows closer to a few members of the family, particularly Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother currently in a marriage dispute. What is it about Nina that she feels so drawn to? Well, much of this is revealed through the flashbacks, which find young Leda (Buckley) as a mother of two. In the present though, we’re left to wonder, where are her children? Are they estranged? Dead? Regardless, the main crux of the story in The Lost Daughter revolves around a fateful afternoon in which Leda makes a rather curious decision.
Nina’s young daughter goes missing one afternoon, causing a panic amongst the family. Who better to find her than Leda, who suddenly becomes a hero in the eyes of the family. Still missing though is the young girl’s doll, which is typically attached to her at the hip. We soon learn though that Leda has the doll, and doesn’t exact intend on giving it back. The absence of the doll causes the family to put flyers up around the island, and the young girl is left distraught by its absence. What exactly is her logic behind doing this? Is it to hurt the family? Is it to get closer to Nina? Or is it because this is the first sort of connection she’s had with anyone in a long time?
Whether focusing on the present or the past, The Lost Daughter is always a pretty compelling mystery. Gyllenhaal never misses a beat with her direction; despite never having made a movie before, she has great sense in what makes a movie tick. The mystery at the root of The Lost Daughter might not be what you’d expect. Some might expect something devastating or shocking, and you don’t really get that. It seems like it’ll be that kind of a movie, but it isn’t quite. This is more of a character study, but it also has the framework of a mystery. They say that no man is an island. This woman IS an island, except on this island, despite her efforts.
This is a really good film and one that will definitely be garnering the Oscar attention it deserves. It’s authentic and somewhat hypnotic with its mysteries. Why it isn’t quite a great sort of rests upon the family. Why would these people continue to hang around Leda? Sure she helped them find their kid but certain plot developments kind of give off the vibe that she isn’t totally one to be trusted. The island also feels a little too small, as if only 10 people live on it. People might quibble with the ending but that didn’t bother me too much. In terms of Netflix’s award slate, more people will probably have an easier time going along with the star studded hysteria of Don’t Look Up. For a near masterclass in writing, directing and acting though, I’m putting my money on Gyllenhaal, Colman and company.
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