If something has Olivia Coleman in it, I'll watch it. It's as simple as that. Whether it’s a movie, a tv show, or a cereal commercial, if it has Olivia Coleman, I am there. After reading that, you’ve probably already reached the conclusion that I was hyped for this film. The trailer for it looked interesting, and the prospect of seeing Jake Gyllenhaal’s sister take on the role of writer and director was pretty intriguing.
The plot is simple. A 48-year-old woman named Leda Caruso vacations in Italy, where an encounter with a young woman and her little girl bring back troubling memories of her early motherhood. That is for all intent and purposes what the film is about, but Maggie Gyllenhaal takes that premise, and with excellent writing and directing, turns it into one of the most compelling and brutally honest psychological dramas I have ever seen.
Psychological drama really is the term of the day when it comes to describing this film. To categorize it as a psychological thriller, which is what the trailer seemed to be attempting, isn’t accurate whatsoever. The film didn’t have me at the edge of my seat but instead had me glued to it. I wasn’t unable to look away, but I had no desire to do so. The people who made this movie didn’t feel the need to inject traditional mystery or suspense into the narrative. They simply allow the movie to just happen, to unfold before us in it’s own way. As a result, nothing that happens feels rushed or artificial, and most importantly, no revelations or payoffs feel unearned. Everything falls into place, and it makes for an incredibly immersive character study.
Before I get into other elements of the film, I can’t help but go back to Olivia Coleman, who is absolutely perfect for her role. It’s as if the woman can’t even blink without giving off some kind of emotion, and she is able to use that quality to portray a person whose uncertainty and anxiousness radiates all around her. Were this role given to a lesser actor, I would not have been nearly as sold on the character as I was. I would have found myself constantly asking, “Why the hell would she do that?” But with Olivia, I never questioned it because she made the character so clear. She doesn’t even know what the hell she’s doing. When she does things that on the surface appear puzzling, it feels like it’s supposed to be exactly that. To summarize, Olivia Coleman is a great actress, because she makes her characters believable. She should honestly just be in more of everything.
Now that I've satisfied the Olivia Coleman fanboy in me, I think it’s time to move on to writing and directing. As you likely know, this movie is the directorial debut of actress Maggie Gyllanhaal, and she also adapted the screenplay from the 2006 novel by pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. Whenever I watch a movie that I know is a directorial debut, there is one question that echoes through my mind: Does this new director show promise? For me, the answer to that question is only yes if the filmmaker does the following three things: 1) They show a basic understanding of how to make a movie; 2) They use those basic filmmaking principals in a way that is unique to them; 3) And the final product reflects the work of an artist who had a vision, who set out to do something and ultimately succeeded. It’s that last box that many debuts have trouble with. Oftentimes, directorial debuts feel to me like an attempt but not a fully realized piece. That’s not to say that the films are bad; on the contrary, many of them are quite good, but they leave me with a feeling that the filmmaker didn’t always have both hands on the wheel, and, as a result, they ended up going down the wrong road. Luckily for us, Maggie Gyllenhaal cruises along like she’s been in the driver's seat for years. Her use of extreme closeups and claustrophobic cinematography complements the uncomfortable tone of the movie perfectly, and her writing isn’t too shabby either. I particularly enjoyed the way she implemented flashbacks, and how they were set off by specific images like a rotten orange or a little girl playing with her mother on a beach. She truly has proven herself to be a real filmmaker with this film. To quote the woman herself, “I think now that I've made a film I've realized I was always a director.” To that, I couldn’t agree more.
It’s easy to see why The Lost Daughter has caught the attention and acclaim that it has. It isn’t just a movie made by a well-known actress that can be thrown in with forgettable fluff like Brie Larson's The Unicorn Store. It is a fascinating and well-made debut that stays in your mind long after the credits roll. Maggie Gyllenhaal is definitely a cinematic force to be reckoned with.