Draped in a pall of melancholy that more than fulfills the promise of its title, “The Lost Daughter” — Maggie Gyllenhaal’s seductive first feature as director — is a movie filled with portents. These start to surface almost immediately as Leda (Olivia Colman), a gifted professor of comparative literature, begins a Greek island vacation, laden with books and scholarly intentions.
It’s not simply the bowl of moldy fruit that mars her charming beachside rental, or the moaning foghorn and flashing lighthouse lantern that Lyle (Ed Harris), the apartment’s caretaker, assures her will only be occasional annoyances. That guarantee proves not to apply to the large and rowdy American family who one day invade Leda’s idyllic beach and whose heavily pregnant matriarch, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), asks her to move her chair. Leda refuses, and there is a brief, tense standoff; for the first time, we sense something steely and resolute in Leda, who until now has appeared politely agreeable. We don’t know who Leda is, but we are suddenly all in on finding out.
Adapted by Gyllenhaal from Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name, “The Lost Daughter” is a sophisticated, elusively plotted psychological thriller. Drip by drip, a vague sense of menace builds as Leda is drawn to Nina (Dakota Johnson), Callie’s daughter-in-law and the unhappy mother of a fractious little girl.
“They’re bad people,” Will (Paul Mescal), the friendly Irish student working the beach bar, warns. Yet watching Nina struggle with her child, Leda’s eyes fill with tears as she recalls her own frustrations as a young mother of two small daughters, now grown. In a series of beautifully shaped flashback scenes, we see the young Leda (brilliantly played by Jessie Buckley) try to work while wrestling with the unending demands of her children and the obliviousness of her unhelpful husband (Jack Farthing). A brief, miraculous escape to an academic conference reveals both the heft of her intellect and the overpowering sexiness of its recognition by a charismatic colleague (entertainingly played by Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard).
Yet only a superficial reading of “The Lost Daughter” would describe it as a meditation on the twin tugs of children and career. It is, instead, a dark and deeply disturbing exploration of something much more raw, and even radical: the notion that motherhood can plunder the self in irreparable ways.
“Children are a crushing responsibility,” Leda tells Callie at one point, Colman’s steady gaze and adjectival emphasis only heightening her character’s allure. In its sly sultriness and emotional intricacy, the movie weaves an atmosphere of unnerving mystery. This is crucially reinforced by Hélène Louvart’s delectable close-ups as she lingers, for instance, on Nina’s appraising glances at Leda, as if sizing up the older woman as a possible ally. But for what?
Though Gyllenhaal can at times lean a little heavily on the sinister signifiers — a worm sliding from a doll’s mouth, an errant pine cone crashing into Leda’s back — she is never thematically distracted, emphasizing how women alone are often presumed lonely (by men like the gently intrusive Lyle), or irrelevant (by women like Callie, smugly buttressed by her swollen belly and swarming menfolk). At the same time the movie, as if absorbing Leda’s ambiguities, has an uncertain quality that thickens the suspense. So when Leda does something childish and inexplicable, the possibility of the act also being dangerous feels much more real.
Equal parts troubling and affecting, Leda epitomizes a type of woman whose needs are rarely addressed in American mainstream movies. We can dislike her, but we are never permitted to revile her. The film’s empathetic gaze and Colman’s spiky, heartbreaking performance — watch her glow in a lovely dinner scene as she shares intimate memories with Will — tether us to her side. In any case, Leda doesn’t need our condemnation; she’s harboring more than enough of her own.
The Lost Daughter
Rated R for joyful adultery and depressing parenting. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. Watch on Netflix.