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 her excellent directing debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal conjures Elena Ferrante’s 2008 source novel into humid, sensual cinema: a captivating miniature, full of telling details and little dramas writ large. The likes of Ed Harris, Dakota Johnson and Paul Mescal provide The Lost Daughter with an impressive Greek chorus. But this is Colman’s stage and her tragedy. You can’t take your eyes off her for a second.
Try as she might, Leda can’t seem to relax into her tranquil island break. She’s disturbed by the buzzing cicada that she finds on her pillow and by the unruly, faintly criminal family from Queens that rents the enormous pink villa just up the coastline. Nina (Johnson), the brood’s volatile young wife, has mislaid her infant daughter on the beach. The daughter, in turn, has mislaid her favourite doll. Abruptly stirred into action, Leda immediately collects them both. She returns the child right away but, prompted by some repressed maternal memory, elects to keep the doll for herself.
In conversation, when she’s sufficiently loosened up, Leda will merrily 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. The beach boy, the caretaker, pugnacious Nina from Queens. No one can quite get the measure of her.
“It’s a working holiday,” Leda insists, whenever anyone implies that she’s here to simply loll about on the beach, and her clarification is revealing. Leda had her daughters young, when she was struggling to establish a career, wasn’t sure about her marriage and didn’t know where she’d be living from one year to the next. In flashbacks we see her (well played by Jessie Buckley) struggling to stay afloat, one eye on the kids and the other on the exit door. Martha and Bianca are demanding, exhausting and prone to idiotic temper tantrums. Work is much better. She prefers it to her kids.
I have yet to read the Ferrante novel and thought that I knew where this one was going. But The Lost Daughter wrongfooted me and took a different, more nuanced direction instead; one that is just as rewarding in its way. I’m not convinced, on balance, that Gyllenhaal’s delicious drama is finally much more than a storm in a teacup. But what a cup, what a storm. When Hurricane Colman blows in from the sea, be sure your roof’s in good shape and that all the windows are fastened.
• This article was amended on 4 January 2022. In an earlier version the character of Martha was misnamed as “Marsha”.