Olivia Colman gives a powerhouse turn in The Lost Daughter, prickly and combustible as Leda Caruso, a middle-aged languages professor on a working holiday in Greece. In flight from her past, possibly from herself, she stares at the sea as though it’s done her a great wrong and eats alone at the bar, repelling anyone who draws close. She haunts the resort like a ghost while other ghosts are haunting her. In an excellent directing debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal turns Elena Ferrante’s 2008 source novel into humid, sensual cinema. This is Colman’s stage and her tragedy; you can’t take your eyes off her for a second.
Leda can’t seem to relax into her tranquil island break: she’s disturbed by the unruly, faintly criminal family from Queens that rents the enormous pink villa just up the coastline. Nina (Dakota Johnson), the brood’s volatile young mother, mislays her infant daughter on the beach. The daughter, in turn, has mislaid her favourite doll. Leda immediately collects them both: she returns the child right away but, prompted by some repressed maternal memory, keeps the doll for herself.
Leda will explain that she has two girls of her own; Martha and Bianca, now both in their 20s. But even here one wonders whether the woman is being entirely straight with us. Her social armour keeps coming loose. Her warm professional front is ripped by capricious cold snaps. She’s solicitous one second; downright spiteful the next. In flashbacks we see her (played by Jessie Buckley) struggling to stay afloat, one eye on the kids and the other on the exit door. Work is much better.
The Lost Daughter wrong-footed me and took a different, more nuanced direction; one that is just as rewarding in its way. Gyllenhaal’s delicious drama might seem like a storm in a teacup. But what a cup, and what a storm.
• This article was amended on 7 January 2022. In an earlier version the character of Martha was misnamed as “Marsha”.