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Children are a crushing responsibility.

The Lost Daughter

(SPOILERS) For her directorial debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal has chosen to make a sensitively shot, acutely measured movie about quite awful people. And so, of course, it has garnered raves. There’s no doubting The Lost Daughter is perceptively staged – she’d make a good horror director, should she ever wish to tackle that genre – and that Gyllenhaal extracts exactly the desired performances from her cast, but if she expected us to trawl through two hours of her protagonist Leda’s subjective discontent, despair and tense encounters and give it two thumbs up, making her so profoundly unsympathetic probably wasn’t the best way to go about it.

I mentioned horror movies, and in a slightly different take on the material, probably a Ben Wheatley one, Leda’s straight-up mentalist act early on, combined with the menacing and obnoxious family of Greek-Americans, of whom she is warned “They’re bad people” would lead to a denouement where she is surrounded by Greeks wearing masks and summarily stabbed with multiple hat pins. It probably wouldn’t have been a better movie, but Gyllenhaal’s setting is oppressively heavy with such tension, mostly thanks to that bloody doll (and in a Wheatley movie, there’s no way a randomly bruising pine cone would just be random).

This deed isn’t really about Leda’s confession “I’m an unnatural mother” though, is it? I mean, what it is, is a movie (or novelistic) conceit, one purely designed to imbue tension and unease. It has very little to do with her flashbacks to her younger self (Jessie Buckley) dealing with two daughters, and her decision to abandon them for three years to be with a dashing – well, okay, not so dashing, but he has a prodigious beard – professor (Peter Sarsgaard). Fair enough, she couldn’t deal, and she tells Nina (Dakota Johnson, trying her inadequate best to seem Greek-American) how the experience of bolting “felt like I’d been trying not to explode, and then I exploded”; “That doesn’t sound amazing” responds Nina levelly. But stealing the doll doesn’t reinforce the idea of a wayward, regretful parent; it makes her plain psychotic.

So no, I didn’t welcome the time spent in Leda’s company (Olivia Colman plays her, doing her patented fuddled, difficult-piece-of-work act). And again, the movie – when it isn’t indulging flashbacks that curiously add very little, other than creating a dissonance between the idea that Buckley could become Colman – seems set on kneading tension from her encounters as if she should be, if not sympathetic, someone with whom we might empathise. Yet her every encounter is absurdly awkward, invariably because she’s so prickly and/or nutso, or because those she encounters are themselves weirdos. There’s a point with this kind of movie where you cumulatively ask yourself why you’re watching, because you know you aren’t going to win. And yet, you feel it incumbent upon yourself to see it through.

Gyllenhaal adapted Ellen Ferrante’s 2006 novel La figlia oscura; perhaps it’s a better read, especially in the original Italian. She may have been very faithful, in which case, the problem is more her esteem for the material than its translation to screen. The filmmaking has a sure eye for the exhaustingly uncomfortable, be it a desiccated Ed Harris as handyman Lyle, presumably attempting to get his end away (Harris is hardly in the thing in any consequential way, so perhaps he and Mags are mates), or young Will (Paul Mescal), whom Leda invites to dinner. Or the long, crazy looks Nina or Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk) give her, at least suggesting Leda’s not the only one on the island with a screw loose. On the other hand, when a worm wriggles out of the doll’s mouth, you’re left wondering if Gyllenhaal took in the Suspira remake while considering whether or not to cast Johnson and the tone was more a whim than essential.

As it plays, The Lost Daughter comprises Leda – presumably stubbornly – putting up with the insufferably vulgar family intruding on her idyll almost from the moment she stretches out in the Sun. No one’s idea of a good time, but she – again, presumably – gets her kicks through knowing she knows something they don’t: the location of the precious doll she appropriates from the bairn who goes missing at one point. It might be on the extreme side, but Nina stabbing Leda with a hat pin is a more rational response to being told of the deranged theft than anything Nina does.

On this evidence, Gyllenhaal will probably make a slam dunk at some point, although that presumes her facility with filmic language doesn’t invest the material with similarly pseudy-but-oh-sensitive resistibility. Because there’s a literalness to The Lost Daughter, in the psychology of emotion, that may prevent her from scaling any great heights. Still, the awards circuit is lapping it up, and Colman is in permanent favour right now (BAFTA aside).

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