WHAT I LIKED: Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut 'The Lost Daughter,' is a masterful character-study that slowly picks away at the layers of a troubled college professor Leda (Olivia Coleman) whilst she's on a summer break in Italy. The film's examination begins when she encounters a suspicious, bullish family there, and one young mother trapped within it (Dakota Johnson) leads her to think back on her own parenthood (Jessie Buckley) so we then witness that through flashbacks between her increasing struggles on holiday. That's an engaging story and format because we start to see how Leda felt trapped in her younger years too, and how she now feels a tremendous amount of guilt for how she struggled with the challenges of motherhood whilst building her career. But it only transcends so well not only because of the brutal honesty of the difficult parenting depicted, but because everything is brought to life so viscerally and with such humanity.
Gyllenhaal's scenes aren't about developing grandstanding effect or even much clarity; they're about cloying, in-the-moment emotions - from the annoyance felt upon the arrival of crowds interrupting a tranquil moment on the beach, to anxiety about small attempts at flirting with guys, or the unbelievable stress and rage triggered by relentlessly pestering children during the flashback sequences.
That approach - emphaised by the fact Helene Louvart's camera clings obsessively to the actors' faces throughout - crucially allows the audience to observe the performances objectively and to be let into the characters naturally like we're peeling away the layers of an onion. For that reason, and because Coleman and Buckley's performances are so wonderfully humanistic and nuanced, it's also likely that everyone will come away with a wildly different assessment of Leda. Personally, I found her a very sympathetic person struggling to live in a world with the expectations of men and children when all she wants is to be left alone as a free wolf.
But whatever assessment you make, you'll undoubtedly be thoroughly engaged in every scene because of that focus on emotional atmosphere. Like the best kind of cinema, it's almost suffocating as you're rarely sat there thinking about a plot or what comes next, you're just engaged in the moment and invested in empathising more and more with the characters you're seeing.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: For what it does it's damn near perfect, it's just a very tough watch at times.
VERDICT: Maggie Gyllenhaal's 'The Lost Daughter,' is a truly masterful character study that slowly peels away at the layers of a troubled woman through brutally real, atmospheric moments of emotion.