Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first feature film has high ambitions

The prodigal daughter ★★★ ½
(MA15 +) 122 minutes, Netflix, from December 31st

The prodigal daughter is based on a novel by the Italian author known as Elena Ferrante, whose identity remains a closely guarded secret. The film is equally mysterious as it dives into a woman’s feelings about motherhood, children and her guilt. In the ’40s, they would have called this a “female image” – but most of them were made by men.

This is the first feature of the wonderfully talented Maggie Gyllenhaal, and it has already appeared on a number of top 10 film lists from 2021. With a great central performance from Olivia Colman, it has depth, intelligence and a powerful seriousness. It is also unfailingly gloomy, raising questions about how we react as an audience.

Dakota Johnson, left, and Olivia Colman explore motherhood and guilt in The Lost Daughter.

Dakota Johnson, left, and Olivia Colman explore motherhood and guilt in The Lost Daughter.Credit:Yannis Drakoulidis / Netflix

Colman, like Leda Caruso, collapses on a deserted beach on a Greek island in the opening scene. The rest of the film takes us through how she got there – her arrival for a vacation in a comfortable private villa; her discomfort at the intrusion on the beach of a large and harsh Greek-American family; her fascination with one of the family’s young women, the beautiful, haunted Nina (Dakota Johnson); the drama that follows when Nina’s brave daughter loses her favorite doll.

Leda is not a pleasant person, as she freely admits to Ed Harris, who plays a longtime resident of the island. She is bitter, evil, secretive and superior. She is a professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggesting that she teaches at Harvard or MIT. She even has two daughters. Much of the film shows her struggles with these daughters when they were little. Jessie Buckley plays the younger Leda, a free-spirited young mother, wife and scholar; her performance has more warmth, necessarily. She plays the woman before the wounds.

Why did the film then fall to me as lacking its ambitions? It could simply be that those ambitions are so high. Gyllenhaal clearly loves the novel; she will do it justice, but there is danger in adapting a great novel.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that great novels cannot be filmed; better to film a smaller novel more freely, he argued. The two forms have been feeding each other for a century, but they have fundamentally different rhythms. Novel writers can take their time, but a film adaptation that adopts these rhythms often dies in a ditch. Ferrante’s novel is about a woman’s state of mind. The plot, also called the plot, is minimal. It may work, but it’s a high bar.

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Gyllenhaal works hard – perhaps too hard – to reflect the literary quality. She keeps Leda’s emotions unrecognizable – allowing Colman to develop her slow-burning resolution on screen. This means that we have to work long distances without much lighting. Gyllenhaal rewards that patience with a popping finale, but before then some will have given up. It’s hard to maintain the sympathy of a woman so deeply closed, even when played by two great actors. There is a long and honorable tradition of filmmaking that does this, challenges our expectations and dares us to judge, but it is a knife-edge for a director.

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