Olivia Coleman in Unforgiving Closeup.

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Deep Neapolitan origins.

I’m not sure that choosing Elena Ferrante’s “The Lost Daughterwas a good choice for Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s her writer/ directorial debut and she may have bitten off more than she can chew. First, the fact that novel is deeply rooted in its Neapolitan origins. Second, that tricky stream of consciousness narration. Third, shifting the narrative from the Amalfi coast to the Greek islands. Fourth, attempting to change the narration into a series of subjective shots and, fifth, changing the language from Italian to English all take their toll.

Coleman’s Leda is not easy to like or even to understand.

Gyllenhaal photographs Coleman in unforgiving closeup for most of the movie. She plays Leda Caruso, a professor of literature from Boston (the name is a reference to Yeats) who is on a working holiday on one of the Greek Islands. Her character is not particularly likable and it’s difficult to get to know her. We get a bit of flirtation with the Irish pool boy (Paul Mescal) and maybe a little with Ed Harris’ caretaker. Her major interactions are with a bunch of rowdy Greek-Americans from Queens who are vacationing in the land of their forefathers. Yes they are loud but her reaction toward them is difficult to fathom, unlike in the book where her reasons are much easier to understand.

The Lost Daughter

Dagmara Domiunczyk and Dakota Johnson.

Her first interaction with the group comes in the glorious figure of Dagmara Dominczyk, an actress who brightens up any movie she’s in. She’s actually Polish-American (born in Poland and moved to the US as a young girl) but, like Isabella Rossellini, she is at home with any accent, at ease in any part of the globe. Her character is what would be described in OBGYN as an elderly primigravida – she’s having her first child at forty. She delights in her pregnancy and she gives Gyllenhaal’s movie its only real injection of life. Coleman’s cold response is basically what a chore it is to bring up children. A total buzz-kill and end of conversation.

The Lost Daughter

We are also introduced Dakota Johnson who also very good but hampered by a bad cosmetology job which makes her a hair-dye, eyebrow-dye and eyelash-dye disaster. She is younger and has a daughter who is always accompanied by her weather-beaten doll. Once or twice a week her loutish husband, who has business on the mainland, turns up.

Dakota Johnson in "The Lost Daughter".

The mystery of the missing doll.

One day, the little girl goes missing and Coleman, much to everybody’s relief, finds her but keeps the girl’s doll for herself. Why she does this we do not know. We do get flashbacks, however, where Coleman’s character (now played by Jessie Buckley) is so deeply unhappy in her marriage that she leaves her husband and two daughters to go to University for a higher degree (it’s a bit like Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita” but with kids). Buckley, like Coleman, and Gyllenhaal has just been Oscar nominated. Both Buckley and her oldest daughter have a doll that they care for dearly so, I guess, there lies the connection.

Jesse Buckley in "The Lost Daughter".

Buckley is a free spirit and nicely matched with Peter Sarsgaard’s professor.

Part of the problem, at least for me, is that Buckley and Coleman do not seem like distant ends of the same person. Yes, people change and get their spirit beaten out of them but there should always be a spark of recognition and I did not find that here. Buckley’s free spirit, who has an affair Peter Sarsgaard’s (Mr. Maggie Gyllenhaal) Yeats scholar, is nowhere to be seen in Coleman.

Not bad for a first-time effort.

So, for a first-time effort, not bad. It is a moderately good adaptation of a great novel. However, if I had to pick my choice of a debut film by another great actress, it would be Rebecca Hall’s “Passing”.

NOW STREAMING ON NETFLIX.

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