I’m not sure that choosing a novel (that would be Elena Ferrante’s “The Lost Daughter”) which is deeply rooted in its Neapolitan origins and has a stream of consciousness narration was a good choice for Maggie Gyllenhaal to make her writer/ directorial debut. Shifting the narrative from the Amalfi coast to the Greek islands, attempting to change the narration into a series of subjective shots and, of course, changing the language from Italian to English all take their toll.
Olivia Coleman, who Gyllenhaal photographs in extreme unforgiving closeup (kudos to cinematographer Helene Louvart) for most of the movie, is 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. She is not particularly likable and it’s difficult to get to know her. She flirts a bit 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.
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. We are also introduced to Dakota Johnson (also very good but hampered by some dreadful, shall we say, Mediterranean makeup that makes her look lie a hair-dye, eyebrow-dye, eyelash-dye disaster) who is younger and has a daughter who is always accompanied by her weather-beaten doll and, maybe twice a week, by her loutish husband who has business on the mainland. 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). Both Buckley and her oldest daughter have a doll that they care for dearly so, I guess, there lies the connection. Part of the problem 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.
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”.