Movie review

Leda (Olivia Colman), a professor on holiday in Greece, quietly watches a young mother (Dakota Johnson) and her small daughter at the beach. The pair, photographed close up, seem indistinct, like you can’t quite tell where the child leaves off and the mother begins. Leda, gazing intently, looks like she might cry; this woman clearly has a story that we haven’t yet been told.  

“The Lost Daughter,” actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directing debut (adapted by Gyllenhaal from an Elena Ferrante novel), is about mothers and daughters and the space in between them — or the absence of that space. Slowly, we begin to learn Leda’s story, interspersed with flashbacks of the character as a young mother (played by Jessie Buckley, who’s entirely convincing as a young Colman) overwhelmed by trying to take care of small children and do her own academic work. She struggles to find patience with them, to carve out a tiny bit of room for herself, away from the ever-piping voices and demands. (There’s one moment midfilm where young Leda is finally alone in a quiet place; Buckley shows us the character’s unspoken I-can’t-believe-it joy.) Eventually, she does something drastic; something that older Leda is still trying to fully understand.

Gyllenhaal here shows herself as a natural storyteller; “The Lost Daughter” flows like water as its characters navigate territory not often explored in film. And Colman, the sort of actor who seems to have the thinnest of membranes separating her emotions from the surface, makes an entire novel from Leda, an acerbic loner whose middle-aged self is defined and haunted by something she did when much younger. (A slight weak link is Johnson, whose character remains beautiful and remote throughout.) Full of thoughtful reflections on motherhood — “The bits that I find the most beautiful about them are the bits that are foreign to me,” Leda muses of her daughters — it’s the kind of movie that haunts you for a while afterward, like clouds that hang in the sky long after the storm has passed.

“The Lost Daughter” ★★★½ (out of four)

With Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard. Written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante. 124 minutes. Rated R for sexual content/nudity and language. Opens Dec. 24 at Crest Cinema Center; begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 31.