Thank Maggie Gyllenhaal for making "The Lost Daughter" (Netflix), one of the year's very best movies. An actress who reliably paints outside the box, Gyllenhaal brings the same questing talent and confrontational urgency to her film debut as a director and screenwriter.
Her film, a raw and riveting character study that plays like a psychological thriller, stars Oscar and Emmy winner Olivia Colman -- a great actress here at her greatest -- as Leda Caruso, a literary academic on a beach vacation in Greece where her perceived failures as a wife and mother of two haunt her in flashbacks with the sublime Jessie Buckley playing her younger self.
The dare in Gyllenhaal acting -- watch her in "The Deuce," "The Kindergarten Teacher," "Sherrybaby, "Secretary" or her Oscar-nominated role in "Crazy Heart" -- is echoed in her work behind the camera. Gyllenhaal is always there to make sure her movies don't go soft.
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Still, in choosing to adapt Italian author Elena Ferrante's 2006 novel, "The Lost Daughter," Gyllenhaal has taken on a beast of a challenge. Ferrante is a pseudonym for an Italian author who is a virtual recluse and, until now, has never allowed her books to be filmed in English.
To persuade Ferrante, Gyllenhaal crafted a letter asking permission to adapt "The Lost Daughter," for which she received approval but only on the condition that the actress-turned-screenwriter would also direct. "We've been inside the male cage for too long," the author said.
Amen to that. What Ferrante termed "the energy of intelligence" in Gyllenhaal's acting is alive in every frame of "The Lost Daughter." And in the magnificent Colman, the film is gifted with the presence of an artist who can speak volumes in the space between words.
There is no voiceover narration to explain what Leda is thinking. But everything we need to know is written on Colman's expressive face as we watch Leda arrive with bags of books the smitten hotel caretaker (Ed Harris) nearly buckles under. Gyllenhaal is quick to show hints of trouble in paradise -- a glistening bowl of fruit rotting from underneath.
There's also a crass interruption of Leda's alone time on the beach, not from a flirty attendant (Paul Mescal), but from a noisy family from Queens, led by a pregnant Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), who pushes Leda to move to another spot so her clan can sit together. Leda's blunt refusal hints at deeper conflicts.
Leda becomes fixated on Callie's sister-in-law, Nina (a never-better Dakota Johnson), a young mother playing with her 3-year-old daughter, Elena, and a doll the child obsesses over, a sight that triggers Leda's memories of her own daughters and the doll they carelessly mistreated.
When the child and her doll go missing, it's Leda who finds the girl but steals the doll, which she takes to her room and cares for diligently in secret. It's an inexplicable act that points to the film's more transgressive mysteries, which will not be spoiled here.
Gyllenhaal is faithful to the book but not to a fault. She adds incidents from her own life as a married mother of two daughters and alters the ending for personal reasons that help make "The Lost Daughter" an exhilarating model of literary adaptation in that it breaks free of the source to create its own truth about being a woman in the modern world.
At an out-of-town conference, young Leda cheats on her husband (Jack Farthing) with a professor, played by Gyllenhaal's husband Peter Sarsgaard, and for a while abandons her children to be with him. Decades later, Leda is asked how that betrayal felt. "It felt amazing," she answers with a lightness that flies in the face of traditional morality.
Colman and Buckley are both astounding, combining to create a portrait of one woman in full. In Colman, Gyllenhaal veers from Hollywood's absurd gym-toned fantasy of the female to show us the seductive beauty and complication of the real thing.
Gyllenhaal revels in hearing Ferrante's women speak subversive thoughts out loud -- no filter. There's no ducking the verbal fireworks as Leda starts treating Nina the way Elena treats her doll, with tenderness giving way to spikes of cruelty and rage.
The ending is a jolt that leaves you eager to put the pieces of the puzzle back together in your own head and heart. "The Lost Daughter" introduces Gyllenhaal as one of the most exciting filmmakers to hit the screen in years. This, you do not want to miss.