November 21, 2021 – Actor-writer Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Secretary”) makes her directorial debut with this Oscar-bait film featuring a very meaty role for award-winning actress Olivia Colman (“The Father”). Colman plays a vacationing, emotionally troubled professor, Leda Caruso. Memories of a troubled past are triggered by an encounter with a child and her mother on a beach in Greece.
Leda is sunbathing alone on the beach, in front of the hotel where she has rented a room, when a loud swarm of tourists land a boat on the beach and immediately ask her to relinquish the beach umbrella she is using for their family gathering. She refuses, which makes them angry. One of them calls her a cunt. Later, a hotel employee, Will (played by Paul Mescal) warns her not to cross them in this way because they are “bad people.” Some of the men in the group do appear dangerous.
While on the beach, Leda becomes fascinated by a young child, Elena (Athena Martin) and her mother Nina (Dakota Johnson of the “Fifty Shades” movies). The sight of the girl and her mother triggers memories of Leda's past when she had an affair and abandoned her family for several years. She left her family in order to advance her high-level academic career, among other reasons.
The guilt Leda feels about her past colors all her actions during her vacation, especially her interactions with Nina and other members of her family. A missing girl, Elena, and Elena's missing doll, are both key elements of the story, and Leda is right in the middle of everything. This story is based on a novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante.
First, Elena goes missing and Nina, along with her large group of family and friends frantically sear water and land. Nobody can find the little girl, until Leda finds her on her own and brings her back to the beach. It seems a bit suspicious that Leda is able to find the child so quickly when so many others had searched far longer and failed. Leda's suspicious activity includes stealing the little girl's doll while everyone else is distracted.
Nina and Elena, and the whole family make such a huge fuss over the missing doll, that I began to think that maybe it had a stash of drugs inside, or maybe diamonds. The mystery of the missing doll continues to haunt most of the rest of the film. Leda never explains why she takes the doll and why she keeps it and hides it in her room, but it seems to have something to do with her troubled past.
Perhaps the doll represents that part of her daughters childhood that she missed while she exiled herself from her family. When Nina asks Leda why she went back to her family, despite being happy away from them, Leda says she missed her daughters and she is a very selfish person. She also says, “I'm an unnatural mother.”
Leda sees herself in Nina, who is clearly unhappy taking care of the very needy Elena. Nina is also unhappy in her marriage, and has dangerous sexual liaisons with Will, the handsome young hotel employee who has also befriended Leda. She confesses to Leda that her husband will kill her if he finds out about the affair.
The film features extensive flashbacks to Leda's younger married days. Leda (the younger Leda is played by Jessie Buckley of “Wild Rose”) finds herself strained by the effort to take care of her daughters. She is unsatisfied sexually by her husband, and her career is suffering. Young Leda is also shown having a torrid extra-marital affair with an academic admirer, Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard of “The Magnificent Seven”).
There is an air of danger that hangs over the film. Leda threatens violence against young people disrupting a movie in a theater. She makes enemies of unruly young men who might try to get even with her. Leda engages in dangerous activity affecting people she has been warned about. Something violent does finally happen, and it makes for a very unexpected conclusion to the movie.
In a way, this is a typical art film in that it moves quite slowly, and nothing much happens. The film is filled with emotions and passions, but none of this is overly melodramatic. This is not the kind of movie that goes for cheap thrills and overly dramatic tragedy or triumph. Rather, it is a realistic portrayal of a woman haunted by her past, but not dominated by it. She has troubles with her memories, but she is able to deal with them in her own way.
Thanks to some fine performances, and writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal, this movie avoids the excesses that typically plague this kind of artistic emotional drama. Instead of desperate dramatics, what we get is a solid story, great acting, and honest emotions. If you like art films, you'll probably like this one. If you don't like art films, you can probably skip this and not regret it. At any rate, look for Colman and Gyllenhaal this awards season. This film rates a B.
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