Five stars for The Lost Daughter

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The setting was transplanted to Greece, rather than the novel’s location of Italy, so the film could be shot there. Leda is now British and the family on the beach is from Queens, New York, with Greek roots. And voila – the actors’ accents are neatly accounted for. Apart from such small tweaks, the film perfectly mirrors the graceful flow and underlying tension of Ferrante’s story. As Leda says in the novel, “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand,” a line that might be a guiding principle for the film, whose entrancing narrative lures us into Leda’s world with all its residual guilt and self-questioning.   

She arrives with a suitcase full of books for a quiet working holiday, and is at first annoyed by the noisy arrival of the American extended family. But Colman and Gyllenhaal create an intentionally queasy feeling when Leda spots Nina among them. Why is she so taken with that young mother and daughter? The answers arrive gradually, in flashbacks with Jessie Buckley as the prickly younger Leda.

The story has its moments of suspense, especially when Nina’s child wanders off from the beach. But the soul of the film exists in the small exchanges and tensions between characters. No motive or interaction is simple, the complications expressed sometimes in glances, sometimes in words. Dagmara Domińczyk sharply defines Nina’s brash, pregnant sister-in-law, Callie, who is by turns benign and intrusive. “Children are a crushing responsibility,” Leda tells her, hardly the diplomatic thing to say to a woman expecting her first child, but the comment – maybe wilfully hurtful, maybe thoughtless – is true to Leda’s character. Johnson, in her best performance by far, poignantly captures Nina’s jumpiness and ambivalence as a woman with nothing to complain about (so she says), except an exhausting child who makes her feel trapped in her own existence. Even the supporting characters have secrets and mysteries. Paul Mescal from Normal People plays Will, an assistant on the beach whose friendship with Leda is slightly unsettling. Ed Harris plays the attentive caretaker of the apartment Leda rents, who may be attracted to her, or simply lonely, or possibly toying with her in some way. The missing doll leads to subterfuge and suspicion. And we begin to wonder whether Leda has tipped over from ordinary to something more disturbed.

In the flashbacks, chronologically but piecemeal, we come to see how Leda became who she is. Buckley’s fierce character is a woman whose passion and professional ambition are a bad fit for her domestic life with her husband and two small daughters. She is never uncaring, but she slams doors, snaps impatiently at her children, and faces a dilemma when she meets an attractive colleague (Peter Sarsgaard). Like Ferrante, Gyllenhaal surfaces uncomfortable questions, including: how far can a woman defy society’s expectations and her maternal role in the interest of saving her own sanity?

Off-screen Gyllenhaal has surrounded herself with other first-rate collaborators, especially Hélène Louvart, whose cinematography captures the bright sun and glimmering night streets, and takes us inside an exuberant town dance where Leda lets loose to Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer.

You don’t have to know or even like Ferrante’s writing to appreciate this colourfully realised world. But it’s notable that Ferrante herself trusted Gyllenhaal with her novel, supporting her choice in a short newspaper column that said: “There’s something much more important at stake than this instinct to protect my own inventions. Another woman has found in that text good reason to test her creative capacities.” And since the film first appeared on the festival circuit, winning best screenplay at Venice, Gyllenhaal has said in interviews that she wrote a letter to the author describing her idea for the film, and that Ferrante agreed only on the condition that Gyllenhaal herself direct it. That stipulation was a generous act that protected a first-time filmmaker from the risk of having the project taken away from her, but it was also a shrewd move on Ferrante’s part. It preserved a vision of The Lost Daughter that now stands on its own as a dazzling, beautifully realised film.

★★★★★

The Lost Daughter is on Netflix from 31 December.

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