The camera is often centimetres away from their faces and yet they are unpredictable – inscrutable even. The Lost Daughter, American actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, gradually unpeels the layers of its narrative and yet leaves so much to be discovered.

It’s hard to believe that the Netflix release is Gyllenhaal’s first film as a writer and director. The American actor’s adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel of the same name is a riveting psychological drama that never settles for shortcuts or easy answers.

Olivia Colman is Leda, a comparative literature professor who, during a vacation in a seaside town, runs into a loud family and memories of her youth. The collision of worlds between the cerebral academic and the rough-mannered family leads to uncontrollable emotions, hints of violence and erotic frisson. Yet, a bond develops between Leda and Nina (Dakota Johnson), who has a possessive husband and a clingy daughter.

Does it ever change, Nina wonders, a question that refers to her specific situation as well as the predicament faced by women across generations. A doll belonging to Nina’s daughter acts as a sometimes painful mnemonic for Leda’s own balancing act between maternal responsibility and individual desire.

Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson in The Lost Daughter (2021). Courtesy Netflix.

Flashbacks reveal Leda’s messy feelings towards her two daughters and the guilt and anxiety that often haunt working mothers (Jessie Buckley plays the younger Leda). In the present, Leda’s actions lead to tense situations with Nina’s family, which sees her as a snobbish outsider from a world far removed from their own.

Working closely with reputed French cinematographer Helene Louvart, Gyllenhaal creates a mood that alternates between introspection and dread. Louvart’s previous projects include the observational and intimate films of Alice Rohrwacher, whose sister, Alba, has a striking cameo in The Lost Daughter.

The acting is top-notch across board. Leda is a woman of many difficult parts, and Olivia Colman fearlessly holds each of them up for scrutiny. Jessie Buckley as the younger Leda and Dakota Johnson as Nina are excellent too in conveying a multi-layered portrait of fractured femininity. Ed Harris has a memorable cameo as the dandy caretaker of the villa rented by Leda.

The niggles include some inelegant flashbacking and the characterisation of Nina’s family as thuggish types. Despite these drawbacks, the movie is a testament to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s command over narrative, visual texture and performance. “Hospitality comes in holding one’s attention,” a character observes in a movie that proves that Gyllenhaal is as talented in front of the camera as she is behind it.

The Lost Daughter (2021).