Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” is a complex debut film

  • Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first film, “The Lost Daughter” premiered in Venice on Thursday.
  • “The Lost Girl” is an adaptation of the successful novel by Italian writer Elena Ferrante.
  • The film has a leading cast including Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson.

The first sign to watch out for when watching a director‘s film for the first time is how well he can tell his story visually, without relying on dialogue or ample exposure. A director who demonstrates good visual culture is a director who has studied and respects the art form. The second sign is whether the director can convey the story in a way that is both compelling and entertaining.

The search for these “telltale” signs is intensified when the first-time director is a former actor, especially in Hollywood films like Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is best known for her measured performances in popular films like 2002’s “Secretary,” Christopher Nolan’s 2008 superhero film “The Dark Knight” and “Crazy Heart” from 2009.

As a viewer, you instinctively seek to find out if this new director’s gig is a sham, just part of said Hollywood actor’s plan for industry dominance or a cheap grab of money. We want to know that we are treated with care and that we are spending our money on an actor turned director who respects our time and our intelligence.

After the debut of her new film “The Lost Daughter” at the Venice Film Festival, it is with great pleasure that I report that Gyllenhaal is not only a director worth your time and money, but a director of great skill and great spirit. Her behind-the-camera debut is a clever and complex narrative that juggles themes of motherhood and loss while ruminating on the exciting environment of contemporary psychological crime with an ultra A-list cast.

What’s New: Maggie Gyllenhaal Has Made Up A Tense And Exciting World Around Her Top Cast

A photo of Olivia Colman in "The lost girl."

Olivia Colman in “The Lost Girl”.

Yannis Drakoulidis / Netflix

“The Lost Girl” is a drama based on the bestselling novel by Italian author Elena Ferrante. Gyllenhaal adapted the novel herself, and

announced in early August that it had acquired the rights to the film. Netflix will offer “The Lost Daughter” a limited theatrical broadcast starting December 1 before making it available to stream on December 31.

This is not the first time that a novel by Ferrante has been adapted for cinema. HBO produced two seasons of “My Brilliant Friend” based on the hit Ferrante series of the same name. “The Lost Daughter” shares some similarities with “My Brilliant Friend” – namely, a beautiful place. The film is set on the coast of an unnamed Greek island where Leda (an inspired Olivia Colman) came on vacation. Leda is a middle aged academic. She works at Harvard (she never clearly discloses it but often proudly points out that she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she says is “near Boston”) and her area of ​​expertise is comparative literature, including especially Italian literature.

Shortly after arriving on the island, Leda spots a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter on the beach. The couple are part of a boisterous and potentially criminal extended family that struts around the island. But for some reason, Leda is devoured by Nina and her daughter. She watches them on the beach, stalks them in the city (one afternoon, she even sees Nina cheating on her husband with a local worker played by Paul Mescal), and one day, in a haze crisis, she steals the doll- Nina’s daughter’s beloved toy. And it is through this doll that “The Lost Daughter” finds its anchorage.

Leda’s daughter had a similar doll in her youth, which prompts her to reconsider some of the difficult and unconventional choices she made as a mother and their consequences for herself and her family. You see, Leda is not a good mother. By her own admission, she’s selfish – in a series of flashback scenes where she’s played by a brilliant Jessie Buckley, we see her leave her children, start an affair with a senior scholar (played by Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard), and she is violent towards her young daughters. But that’s not because she’s an inherently bad person or the “bad guy” in this story. Her life is complex, she has to balance her burgeoning college career and the specific desire for perfection and dedication that this career demands of being a young mother and supportive partner for her husband (played by Jack Farthing).

Like all young academics, she also has money issues and doesn’t have a support system to fall back on – her own mother has struggled to provide it. Or that’s what Gyllenhaal tries to convey with his muddled account. And the fact that I’m presenting those thoughts here maybe means that she was successful (it took some serious inner work to justify a narrative based solely on a middle-aged woman stealing a child’s plastic toy).

You don’t watch this movie wanting to root Leda but you don’t want her to suffer either. Instead, the film evokes what I believe to be the most powerful emotion cinema can evoke: empathy. You understand Leda’s desire for success, her reluctance to settle down and, in theory, her decision to abandon her family as these are all emotions that we have felt at some point in our lives. It is only in Hollywood cinema that these complexities are routinely dismissed for easy conclusions. But it’s a habit Gyllenhaal thankfully refuses to indulge in, and his debut is all the more powerful because of it.

Bottom Line: Maggie Gyllenhaal is a writer-director to watch

Olivia Colman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dakota Johnson at "The lost girl" photocall at the 78th Venice International Film Festival.

Olivia Colman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dakota Johnson at the photocall for “The Lost Daughter” at the 78th Venice International Film Festival.

Marc Piasecki / Getty Images for Netflix

During “The Lost Daughter” press conference at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday, one of the festival’s curators revealed that the main reason the festival team decided to invite the film to the Lido for his first was that they were so stunned by the confidence and clarity of Gyllenhaal’s vision. In response, Gyllenhaal spoke of the nervousness she felt before deciding to step behind the camera for the first time.

It is here between the sweet spot of clear, singular talent and uncompromising honesty that “The Lost Daughter” is most interesting. My only hope now is that “The Lost Daughter” is actually seen by audiences – preferably in a theater – and not lost in what will be a loaded fall release schedule specifically at Netflix (the streamer alone is releasing new films by Jane Campion, Adam McKay and Paolo Sorrentino) because Gyllenhaal’s debut is not just an exciting watch, but it’s a story I think the world needs.

“The Lost Daughter” will hit theaters for limited theatrical release on December 1 before being available to stream on December 31.

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