Greetings again from the darkness. There are so many things that go unspoken about parenting, and first time writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal specifically focuses her lens on the pressures of motherhood, by adapting the 2006 novel from the anonymous and talented and mysterious Italian writer Elena Ferrante. Of course, we are all aware of Ms. Gyllenhaal’s fine work as an actor, yet it’s almost beyond belief that this is her debut as a feature film director. The source material is strong, but Ms. Gyllenhaal, along with a terrific performance from Olivia Colman (Oscar winner, THE FAVOURITE, 2018), turn a coastline vacation into a mesmerizing psychological case study.
Ms. Colman proves yet again what a fine and versatile actor she is. Here she plays Leda, a divorced professor on solo holiday on a picturesque Greek island, staying in a refurbished lighthouse tended by longtime caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris). Leda is packing a satchel full of books and academia work, and is a bit perturbed when her isolated beach time is suddenly interrupted by a large and noisy family of vacationers from Queens. Being an observant loner, Leda eyes young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) who is struggling with her daughter, as well as her husband and other family members. This triggers memories in Leda that are handled via flashbacks with a terrific Jessie Buckley (I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, 2020) as young Leda, stressed out wife and mother to two daughters. She longs for her own space.
At face value, this appears to be a movie about a woman annoyed that she can’t just enjoy a quiet holiday on the sandy beach as she reads her books. However, there are so many layers to the story and to Leda, that as viewers, we must remain on high alert to pick up all the queues and subtleties. Watching Nina with her daughter and husband sends Leda deep into her past … a past that still haunts her to this day. At the same time, while gazing at Leda, Nina can’t help but wonder if she is looking at her own future self.
Much of what we see (past and present) reinforces the isolation and frustration felt by so many mothers. It has nothing to do with loving one’s kids, but rather maintaining one’s sanity and self-being. There are a few key moments, including one that creates tension between Leda and the vacationing family, and another that immediately connects the two. Leda’s past includes steps that would be considered taboo for any wife and mother, and the symmetry of her past and Nina’s present are striking.
Peter Sarsgaard (director Gyllenhaal’s real life husband) has a supporting role in the flashbacks, while Dagmara Dominczyk plays a critical role as Callie, part of Nina’s large family. Bonus points are won with a Leonard Cohen reference (that may or may not be true), and also playing key roles here are a missing doll (connecting Leda’s past and present) and the proper way to peel an orange. Cinematographer Helene Louvart works wonders balancing the beautiful setting with the not-always-beautiful actions of the characters. Especially potent here is the performance of Olivia Colman, who proves she can play most any role. It’s also remarkable what first time director Maggie Gyllenhaal has accomplished here. This is a multi-layered, nuanced look at how relentless parenting can often feel overwhelming and may even lead to feelings of guilt later in life. It’s rare to see such a raw look at the emotions behind what is often referred to as the joy of motherhood. The film leaves little doubt that the always-dependable actor Maggie Gyllenhaal is now one of the most interesting new filmmakers on the scene.
In select theaters on December 17, 2021 and on Netflix beginning December 31, 2021