Review by Sean Boelman
Often, when an actor makes the transition into directing, their debut is something showy and suffering from a feeling of overindulgence. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter is a rare exception to that trend, a layered character study that has a subtle yet lingering impact on the viewer.
The film follows a professor on vacation in a coastal town in Italy as she reflects on her own past and trauma when she helps a family track down their daughter who wanders away. It’s the type of movie where the story itself isn’t that important, but the emotion it causes is what is of greater significance.
Much of the film’s conflict is explored through flashbacks, and while this can be an overused narrative device, it works extremely well here. Cutting between the present and the past really emphasizes the feelings of regret that drive much of the movie. The result is that Gyllenhaal quite effectively makes the audience feel uncomfortable.
This is a very intimate, rich script, and that is a big part of what makes it successful. The film is obviously an exploration of motherhood, and what the movie has to say in that regard is interesting, but it is even more intriguing as an exploration of remorse. There is a lot going on in this for something that seems so simple.
The character development is very layered as well. The protagonist is initially likable before becoming someone much more complicated, but Gyllenhaal makes her compelling even if some of the decisions she makes are frustrating. The supporting characters are the opposite way, initially unlikable but later warming to the audience.
Olivia Colman is one of the greatest performers working today, and her performance here is yet another bright spot on her resume. She knocks it out of the park with a turn that is quiet, yet commanding, matching the understatedly brilliant nature of the film. Somehow Dakota Johnson also holds her own against Colman, providing a great counter to her.
The cinematography by Hélène Louvart is gorgeous, capturing the beautiful Italian vistas wonderfully. This is really the only area of the movie in which Gyllenhaal allows herself to indulge in artistry, as it’s perhaps too pretty of a film for the material, but it also lends itself to a hypnotic feel which is quite immersive.
The Lost Daughter isn’t the type of movie that leaves you blown away, but rather, one that is restrained in its brilliance. It’s a fabulous directorial debut for Maggie Gyllenhaal, and it will be exciting to see where she goes from here.
The Lost Daughter hits theaters on December 17 and Netflix on December 31.