Friday 7 January 2022

Whoa mama: "The Lost Daughter"

In making her directorial debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal has turned to the none-more-fashionable novelist known as Elena Ferrante, but her line of approach appears to have been guided by the knockout performance she gave in 2018's
The Kindergarten Teacher. The Lost Daughter is a film founded on two assertions: one, that audiences will be willing to follow a character with sometimes questionable motives so long as she's being played by the right actress; and two, that children can be a source of uncommon tension if placed in the right (which is to say wrong) hands. Arriving at a sunkissed Greek coastal resort, Olivia Colman's professor Leda - a name that assumes extra resonance in a land of legends and myth - is clearly hoping to get away from it all. Instead, her trip only takes her back; going out into the world among people - most noisomely the extended Greek-American family who litter her beach of choice - only serves to underline her solitude. This happens more often than we think or are prepared to acknowledge, which doesn't make it any less unsettling when it does. 

What Gyllenhaal has spied in Ferrante's words is an inversion (or perversion) of the usual movie holiday romance: looking beyond the men who gather to attend her needs, our middle-aged heroine instead develops a fixation on a young mother (Dakota Johnson) whose rangy, bronzed limbs - eminently Instagrammable, displaying no trace of postpartum fat - soon fill Gyllenhaal's frames as they do Leda's imagination. We know Leda has daughters of her own: we hear her talking on the phone to one of them and talking to other people about them, and eventually we get flashbacks that show a young Leda (Jessie Buckley) interacting with them. Yet we're set to wondering what her deal is even before she starts being awkward around the locals - Johnson, chiefly, but also Ed Harris as the handyman who runs her holiday home, and Normal People's Paul Mescal as the cabana boy obliged to listen, agog, as Leda starts oversharing details of her daughter's breasts. She's hung up in a way we traditionally associate with male characters, which makes her a fascinating study: at best a walking mystery (hung up on what?), at worst a woman of an age where the (perhaps lazy) assumption is she shouldn't be acting as twitchily as this. Still, she's been alone for a long while, and people can get weird when they've been left alone for a long while.

No question that Gyllenhaal found the exact right performer to play her: belated success has made Colman only more confident about her projection of awkwardness. It seems only a few years since she was the mousy yet passive-aggressive Sophie in TV's Peep Show, and watching her march to podium after podium has been at least as headscrambling an experience for British onlookers as it must have been for Colman herself: it's almost as if Samantha Janus or Sally Phillips were being acclaimed as the best actress in the world. (Perhaps they might have been, handed opportunities like this.) The Colman touch is innately self-effacing: she's one of those actors who never seems to be acting much, rather responding instinctively and unfussily to the environment she's been set down in. Here, it has the effect of making even Leda's wilder missteps seem natural, and this is a character who has, let's say, gearchanges to make. She goes some way further than Sophie in her eccentricity, fumbling towards an act that stands in for an outright transgression (it's a kidnap of sorts) and appears designed - in her head, at least - to right a wrong that happened in her still-too-recent past. She has the best intentions somewhere towards the bottom of her tote bag: circumstances conspire to hand her a balcony seat for the spectacle of unhappy history repeating itself, and the opportunity to intervene to everyone's benefit, possibly even to fix something in herself. Yet those good intentions are soon buried beneath sunglasses, sun lotion and towels, not to mention what she brings back from her daily beachcombing sessions. Both Colman and Buckley in the flashbacks make complete sense of Leda's wrong turns: they skilfully measure out this woman's tether and reel their way towards the end of it, leaving us watching a character walking towards disaster in open-toed sandals. The miracle - and it is pretty miraculous, given how the film is set up, and the ominous echoes this plot triggers in the viewer's mind - is that nobody dies. That doesn't mean we're not in for an altogether bumpy ride.

This is surely how Gyllenhaal planned it, and you're struck by the control she exercises over this material. It's most apparent in and around the flashbacks, jagged psychological shrapnel lodged in a mind that can't yet shake them free. Gyllenhaal puts the right flashbacks in the right places, which is to say those that speak most forcefully, even violently to the modern-day material around it. As an actress, she's always been fearless in her choice of project. (Few ingenues would have selected Secretary as their breakout role, and even fewer mothers would have returned from maternity leave by playing a pornstar, as Gyllenhaal did on TV's The Deuce.) As a director, she's similarly unafraid of leaning into those moments where these characters do or say properly regrettable things; in so doing, she pushes what might have proved the movie equivalent of light beach reading into complicated, adult territory. The giveaway is Leda's relationship with sexy tortoise Harris, which appears readymade for long, Nicholas Sparks-ish walks on the beach at sunset, but instead falls apart before our very eyes. It can't happen because Leda can't move past what happened to her; and so the cycle of loneliness and self-recrimination starts up all over again.

There are wobbles in places - like a so-so song choice that drowns out a crucial conversation between young Leda and the father of her children - and it feels a bit boxy at two hours. Yet the extra time allows Gyllenhaal and cinematographer-of-the-year Hélène Louvart (Rocks, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão) to better define the film's climate, for one. The Lost Daughter opens as warmly as any Mamma Mia! movie - it'll draw in anyone casually trawling Netflix for winter escapism - but turns chillier the more it looks into its heroine's pathology. (Crucially, Colman is never allowed to get much of a tan; the clouds hanging over Leda's head are too dark for that.) If it's still a touch literary in its conception and execution - a good book, well filmed - compensation comes in the expressionist tangles of arms, legs, flanks and faces with which Gyllenhaal sporadically breaks up her action, analogues for the plot and some of the thinking driving it. The result goes further and deeper (and lingers longer) than a phenomenon like We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book written from a very specific perspective - almost a manifesto for celibacy - which yielded a film that worked up to a point. There, a child proved liability enough to call a mother's behaviour and sanity into question. Ferrante and Gyllenhaal, for their part, trace that line of thinking back to its source, wondering whether motherhood itself - the desire to look out for somebody else, and the need to set parts of yourself aside so as to be nurturing, sensible, good - is enough to knock you off-centre, if not drive you mad entirely. Watching the never more solitary Leda rocking back-and-forth on the beach in the film's closing moments, you can't help but worry for her, and wonder what lies in her future. But then this is a movie that makes mothers of us all.

The Lost Daughter is now showing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Netflix.

No comments:

Post a Comment