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The Lost Daughter ★★★

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Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Stars: Olivia Coleman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Ed Harris

Released:  Venice Film Festival 2021

There is no denying Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s ambition in her directorial debut, which she also wrote, based on a novel by Elena Ferrante. The Lost Daughter sets out a smorgasbord of big themes and moral and social dilemmas to take in; fluctuating maternal instinct, adultery as a way to find yourself, self-fulfilment versus societal expectations, marriage and motherhood at too early an age, the loneliness of middle age, Yeats versus Auden. There’s no denying, too, the impressive talent in the film; Olivia Coleman and Jessie Buckley as respectively the older and younger versions of the lead character, languages professor Leda Caruso, Ed Harris, his face etched with the lines of years of good work in the industry, Peter Sarsgaard and a supporting cast led by Dakota Johnson and Oliver Mansour Jackson- Cohen.

On paper, it should all lead to something special, an independent film that stays with you long after you’ve seen it because of the audacity of its aims. Instead, as one person after another began to walk out of the screening I was at in Venice, I confess to feeling a pang of envy as I stole yet another glance at my watch.

The film is certainly slow but not especially turgid. Olivia Coleman and Jesse Buckley are splendid as usual. And Gyllenhaal’s directing is assured and not entirely lacking in an occasional level of flair. But The Lost Daughter is heavy going and not particularly interesting in the process. It doesn’t help that none of the central characters are likeable. The dialogue is frequently painful to listen to, and during a couple of ill-advised sex scenes.

Sadly, it’s all the cinematic equivalent of being promised a Magical Winter Wonderland but finding yourself in a concrete car park on the edge of town faced with a few sorry looking huts selling Christmas tat under triangular rooftops covered in synthetic snow and a miserable looking Santa at the entrance.

It all starts so promisingly. An anguished Olivia Colman as professor Caruso stumbles towards a dark sea and falls heavily where the tide could sweep her away. Immediately we know something terrible has happened. We then go back in time with her to when she arrives on a Greek island on a working holiday. Despite her polite smiles, she is clearly a coiled bundle of volatile emotions trying hard to relax. Ed Harris is the handyman working at the villa where she’s staying. He seems keen to strike up a friendship. The scene might be being set for a midlife romance. A bowl of beautiful fresh fruit has been left on her table as a welcome gift. But when she picks up the piece of the fruit, it is rotten underneath. The scene is set for us to perhaps discover the ugly underbelly of the beautiful holiday island.

Out on the beach, Professor Caruso observes a young woman’s interactions with her small daughter. It brings back memories of her own two daughters, and the flashbacks show that the memories are painful. The scene is set for some mystery to be revealed.

The young woman, Nina, is played by Dakota Johnson and Professor Caruso clearly sees something of herself in the seemingly carefree life of the young woman, who, nevertheless, every so often appears to find the demands of the child too much. The young woman’s handsome but brutish husband and his rowdy gang turn up to shake the peace of the quiet beach with their uncouth carousing, much to Professor Caruso’s annoyance. She learns that these are ‘not good people’. The scene is set for potential menace, even violence.

The nervy Professor meets a young British student, Will, who is helpful and perhaps a little attracted to her. The scene is set for a possible young man, older woman summer romance.

Nina’s young daughter goes missing. The scene is set for a possible mystery or crime thriller. Then the girl’s doll is misplaced. Is the scene being set for something more sinister?

Unfortunately, none of the scenes which are set up for a potentially absorbing story goes anywhere. The film has more loose ends than an unfinished piece of knitting where stitch after stitch has been dropped.
The Lost Daughter, sadly, is a chore.

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