Olivia Colman as Leda in Netflix's "The Lost Daughter." 

Olivia Colman as Leda in Netflix's "The Lost Daughter."  Credit: Netflix/Yannis Drakoulidis

MOVIE "The Lost Daughter"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix and in theaters

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Olivia Colman plays Leda Caruso, a British-born academic who travels to a Greek island hoping to soak up a few rays and calm her mind. Instead, she fixates on a young, rough-around-the-edges mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her cute but demanding little daughter, Elena (Athena Martin). After the girl misplaces a doll and becomes inconsolable over the loss, Leda finds it — then steals it, for reasons that initially defy explanation. As the film unfolds, we develop a clearer picture of Leda, and it isn’t a pretty one.

"The Lost Daughter" is based on a novel by Elena Ferrante (famous for her four-volume "Neapolitan Novels") and written by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who makes her directorial debut.

MY SAY This has been a good year for literary adaptations from female directors. First came Rebecca Hall’s "Passing," about a Black woman who sheds her racial identity, followed by Jane Campion’s "The Power of the Dog," about a cruel cattle rancher with a troubling secret. Gyllenhaal’s "The Lost Daughter" completes the trilogy — all from Netflix, by the way. Each offers a thoughtful, intelligent antidote to the slam-bang Marvel movies that have dominated the box office over the past two COVID-plagued years.

Of the three, Campion’s is the most immediately compelling, but Gyllenhaal’s entry is a close second and offers by far the best lead performance, from Colman (who also serves as an executive producer here). An early scene in which Colman’s Leda transforms instantly from pleasant tourist to prickly troublemaker — simply by refusing a polite request to move her beach chair a few feet — tells us we’re in for a highly complex character study from a top-notch actor.

What’s Leda’s problem? For one, she’s a garden-variety snob, easily triggered by rowdy teenagers and rambunctious children. She also seems jealous of Nina’s youth and beauty. (Leda flirts awkwardly with her villa’s caretaker, Lyle, played by a terrific Ed Harris, and a handsome college student, Will, played by Paul Mescal, of Hulu’s "Normal People.") Still, something darker is eating at her — maybe it consumed her long ago — and we gradually realize that it has to do with her own daughters, now grown and glaringly absent from her life.

There’s some much-deserved Oscar talk around Colman, who last won as an emotionally cracked Queen Anne in 2018’s "The Favourite." The revelation here, though, is Jessie Buckley as the young Leda. An Irish actor whom Americans might recognize from the television series "Fargo," Buckley carries close to half the movie in a series of flashbacks that crackle with tension. She plays a woman stifled by motherhood and yearning for life’s other rewards — a career, travel, sexual freedom. (Peter Sarsgaard, Gyllenhaal’s husband, is nicely cast as a fellow academic who woos her with dirty talk and references to Paul Ricœur.) Buckley’s Leda is a tragedy in the making, but our heart goes out to her — at least, to a point.

Fans of those great 1970s movies where nothing yet everything seems to happen will find a lot to love in "The Lost Daughter." It’s an auspicious debut from Gyllenhaal, who observes every little moment with intense focus, and another riveting performance from Colman, who develops a wrenching portrait of motherhood with quiet, chilling intensity.

BOTTOM LINE Olivia Colman shines darkly in a delicately handled drama from first-time director Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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