Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut feature has big ambitions
The lost girl ½
(MA15 +) 122 minutes, Netflix, from December 31
The lost girl is based on a novel by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, whose identity remains a well-kept secret. The film is equally mysterious, as it delves into a woman’s emotions about motherhood, children and her feelings of guilt. In the 1940s, they would have called it a “photo of a woman” – but most of them were taken by men.
This is the feature debut by wonderfully talented Maggie Gyllenhaal, and it has already appeared on a number of 2021 Best 10 Film lists. With an excellent central performance from Olivia Colman, it has depth, depth, and depth. intelligence and a powerful seriousness. It’s also infallibly dark, which raises questions about how we react, as an audience.
Colman, as Leda Caruso, collapses on a deserted beach on a Greek island in the opening scene. The rest of the film tells us how she got there: arriving for vacation in a comfortable private villa; his discomfort at the intrusion on the beach of a large and rude family from Greek America; his fascination with one of the young women in the family, the beautiful haunted-looking Nina (Dakota Johnson); the drama that follows when Nina’s cheeky daughter loses her favorite doll.
Leda is not a pleasant person, as she freely admits to Ed Harris, playing the role of a longtime resident of the island. She is bitter, mean, secretive and superior. She’s a professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggesting she teaches at Harvard or MIT. She has two daughters of her own. Much of the film shows his struggles with these girls when they were little. Jessie Buckley plays the youngest, Leda, a young mother, wife and free-spirited scholar; its performance has more heat, necessarily. She plays the woman before the injuries.
Why then did the film seem a little below its ambitions? It may just be that these ambitions are so high. Gyllenhaal clearly likes the novel; she wants to do it justice, but there is danger in adapting a great novel.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that great novels cannot be filmed; better to film a less important novel more freely, he argued. The two forms have fed on each other for a century but they have fundamentally different rhythms. Novelists can take their time, but a film adaptation that adopts these rhythms often dies in a ditch. Ferrante’s novel is about the state of mind of a woman. The plot, that is, the action, is minimal. It may work, but it’s a high bar.
Gyllenhaal works hard – perhaps too hard – to reflect this literary quality. She keeps Leda’s feelings unknowable – allowing Colman to develop her slow onscreen disintegration. This means that we have to work for long periods without much lighting. Gyllenhaal rewards this patience with a mind-blowing finale, but by then some will have given up. It’s hard to keep sympathy for such a deeply closed woman, even when played by two great actors. There is a long and honorable tradition of films that do this, challenge our expectations and dare us to judge, but it’s a common thread for a director.