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It always speaks well of actors’ humility when they make their directorial debut with a film in which they do not star. It speaks well of their gifts, however, when you sense their screen presence in the film anyway: a strength and specificity of personality that survives their absence and colors other actors’ performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes just such a debut with her slippery, sinuous, subtly electrifying Elena Ferrante adaptation “The Lost Daughter”: She’s never made a film before, and yet you’d already feel comfortable classifying it as “a Gyllenhaal film,” the way you might name-brand Joanna Hogg or François Ozon — to name two other directors briefly (though not derivatively) reflected in this film’s glinting, angular surfaces.
Gyllenhaal’s restraint in staying off-screen is all the more notable given that Leda, the thorny, inconstant heroine of Ferrante’s 2006 novel, is exactly the kind of character with which she typically excels as an actor. From the sadomasochistic office assistant of “Secretary” to the recovering train wreck of “Sherrybaby” to the obsessive classroom Svengali of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” she specializes in women others might call “difficult,” with inscrutable desires and ill-fitting social graces. Sure enough, that sympathy for difficulty surfaces here in all manner of ways.
Gyllenhaal might well have been superb as Leda, a 40-something literature professor vacationing alone on a balmy Greek island yet unable to find psychological peace. Still, it’s hard to imagine she’d have been better than an extraordinary Olivia Colman, who wears the role as naturally and unfussily as the oversize white linen blouse that is Leda’s default beachwear, reveling in the chance to play a “normal” female protagonist after the stiff, stylized work of playing various queens to Oscar- and Emmy-winning effect.
Note those scare quotes, for there’s nothing especially normal about Leda, a woman who tartly rejects any prescriptive model of what a woman should be. The more time we spend with her, the more complications we see in her reserved, polite, slightly skittish demeanor: a first impression that wouldn’t draw a second glance from most people, in large part because middle-aged women are so scantly studied by society at all. Colman, a born character actor who seems as surprised as anyone that she’s become a headlining star in her 40s, plays her with the wary knowledge of what it’s like not to be looked at, to keep largely secret one’s eccentricities and flashes of brilliance.
Leda’s on her best behavior when she arrives at the pebbly island, projecting an air of mummy affability to Lyle (Ed Harris), the awkwardly flirtatious proprietor of the apartment she’s renting, and Will (Paul Mescal), the young, dreamy resort manager she admires from a slightly sheepish distance. But her spinier attributes emerge when her idyll is crashed by a rowdy extended family of holidaymakers with various squealing children in tow. Her initial hostility toward them is met in kind by queen bee Callie (a revelatory Dagmara Domińczyk), though she grows increasingly fixated on Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who never seems entirely at home in the role. Bleary and sporadically detached from her cherubic daughter, she has more of a kindred spirit in Leda than she realizes.
For Leda, we gradually learn, is what she herself terms an “unnatural mother”: She mentions her two adult daughters when asked, and speaks good-naturedly to them on the phone from time to time, yet long stretches go by when they don’t seem to be on her mind at all. The film’s title is just its first feat of clever wrong-footing in this regard, as an increasingly intricate flashback structure — like the continuous, spiraling skin of the oranges she peeled for her daughters as girls, her one maternal party trick — fills us in on Leda’s history of discomfort and disassociation as a mother.
The younger Leda is remarkably played by Jessie Buckley with flinty defiance and an escalating sense of suffocated mania. If she and Colman resemble each other no more than any two women pulled off the sidewalk, that works slyly to the film’s advantage, as if the exhaustion and trauma of Leda’s youth has yielded an entirely new face. Yet the physical and gestural mirroring between the two actors is quite astonishing: Often, Colman’s distinctive expressions emerge as uncanny flashes and flinches in Buckley’s visage, like a ghost of motherhood future. These are performances that feel duly steered by a director with an empathetic understanding of unusual women and unusual actors alike; Gyllenhaal’s cinematographer, the great and prolific Helene Louvart, jaggedly zeroes in on faces and features with equivalent empathy and fascination.
For a film that contains no explicit violence or violations, “The Lost Daughter” nonetheless feels quiveringly, exhilaratingly close to something taboo. It’s a rare film that dares to question the supposedly inviolable value of motherhood — a phenomenon typically held up as so sacred that any women who don’t feel attuned to it are encouraged to doubt themselves. It’s not at all surprising that Gyllenhaal has arrived as a filmmaker with such a bold, conflicted paean to unorthodox femininity. But it’s thrilling just the same.
‘The Lost Daughter’
Rating: R, for sexual content/nudity and language
When: Opens Friday
Where: Landmark Hillcrest; available Dec. 31 on Netflix
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes