A woman’s beach vacation takes a dark turn when she begins to confront the troubles of her past.
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It’s funny how we delude ourselves. We push traumatic memories to the back of our minds, refusing to deal or think about the impact painful events have had on us. Even worse is when we justify things we’ve done that have hurt others. We’re all guilty of this at one time or another, ultimately hiding from the reality of our distressing past and our fractured present.
That certainly is the case with Leda (Olivia Coleman). All she wants to do is have a relaxing holiday in Greece, perhaps do a bit of work, maybe recharge and get a fresh start. However, like the best laid plans, Leda’s trip goes awry-not due to some sudden, unexpected incident- but rather by slow degrees, small acts of aggression wearing down her defenses. And because of this, old thoughts begin to creep back in, incidents she thought she’d put to rest reemerge, now back to haunt her with renewed power.
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” is the very definition of a slow-burn movie, a meticulously made character study of a woman slowly losing her grip on reality. Adapted from the novel by Elena Ferrante, it’s a deliberately paced film-a bit too deliberate at times- that slowly gets under your skin, ultimately serving as a cautionary tale about just how tenuous our grip on reality can be.
Leda’s troubles begin inauspiciously. Unbeknownst to her, the apartment she’s let is near a lighthouse that’s a bit too close, it’s intrusive glare and foghorn something the caretaker (Ed Harris) says isn’t as bad as it seems. The fruit left for her, which she discovers is rotten, is another sign things aren’t as serene as they seem. However, the most disturbing moment occurs when, while relaxing on the beach, it’s overrun by an overbearing American family who rudely invade her space and, at one point, ask her to move so that they may all sit together. She refuses and the trouble begins.
However, Leda spies a woman she seems might be a kindred soul, Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who’s married into this family who has a little girl. Overwhelmed and getting little help, the young woman is obviously fatigued and on-edge. And when her daughter goes missing, she reaches her breaking point. Thank goodness Leda finds the girl…as well as her doll, which she keeps for herself.
Coleman gives a finely calibrated performance, sly and intelligent throughout. As Leda begins to unravel, the experiences with this family triggering a series of repressed memories, the actress subtly shows this woman slowly coming apart. It’s a fascinating turn that’s a model of restrained film acting that pays big dividends during the movie’s third act. Also of note is Jessie Buckley, one of the most intriguing modern actors who we see via flashbacks as the young Leda. We see her haggard with two young daughters, a self-absorbed husband and doctoral work she isn’t allowed to spend the time on that she’d like. Watching these bookend performances by these two is the most captivating thing about the film.
No question, the film takes its time while the ending opens itself up to questions that I’m not sure Gyllenhaal fully explains or has the foundation to support. Still, she’s a director to watch as “Daughter” is a well-made, ambitious debut that, while it may not speak to all viewers, raises challenging questions about the danger of fooling ourselves into believing all is well with our place in our world and the damage that’s done when we realize that isn’t true.