Olivia Colman gives a staggering performance in The Lost Daughter as the tempestuous and downright prickly Leda Caruso – a middle-aged comparative literature professor ‘enjoying’ a working holiday at a beautiful Greek getaway.

But joy doesn’t seem to be part of Leda’s vocabulary. Backing herself into a life of solitude, she stares grimly out to sea and spends most of her time rubbing people up the wrong way. Dressed all in white, she haunts the idyllic beach resort like the ghost of a life not lived. And as she locks horns with a family of regulars, it becomes clear there’s more to all this then mere stubbornness.

The sight of Olivia Colman’s Leda collapsing before the waves on a pebble-strewn beach in the opening scenes of The Lost Daughter sets the tone – this is a film about women who are struggling. Leda is a college professor, a woman who strives for excellence in everything she does. But she’s more than that – she’s a mother, too. It’s this aspect of her life that Leda has struggled with, but that’s all in the past. Her two daughters are grown up, and that’s now all behind her, right?

In her directorial debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal conjures a modern female tragedy, taking on a tough subject – what happens when a mother is ambivalent towards motherhood? It’s more than mere post-natal depression. This is a woman who was never designed to be a mother, and in various forms has resented and begrudged her humble home life.

CR: YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021.

Based on the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter gives Colman ample material to work with. Her performance as Leda takes an astounding turn inward as her current struggles on the island resort echo scenes from her past. During flashbacks to her daughters’ childhood, Leda is played by Jessie Buckley, who channels the exact same performance as Colman – a wildly frantic young woman whose inner tension brings passive ambivalence to a screeching halt as she thunders through the most domestic of scenes.

Through these flashbacks, we see Leda’s troubled past – struggling to connect with her young daughters, Bianca and Martha. Often relatable, these scenes of domestic bliss quickly break down as one or more of her children become agitated, sad, lost or hurt… But it’s Leda’s reactions to these which provide such an insight into her current instability. She’s a woman filled with regret for her past. Even peeling an orange holds bitter symbolism – her children love watching her “peel it like a snake” but the orange peel is fragile and so close to breaking. But while Buckley does a stellar job, this is Colman’s tragedy and her spotlight.

Back at the beach in the present day, Leda’s relationships with those around her are almost universally fraught with tension. Refusing to move down the beach to make way for a family at first seems like a mere act of defiance. But it’s more than that – Leda refuses to be helpful or do the ‘nice’ thing. It’s clear that she keeps people at arm’s length, especially when those around her are nothing but compassionate towards her.

But Leda is a complicated soul. She oscillates between friendly and stand-offish – clearly craving human interaction but also fearful of it. And when a young girl goes missing at the beach, she can’t help but get involved. Even this is a double-edged sword – she finds the young girl, becoming an instant hit with her family… but also can’t help but continue riling them up in other ways.

Leda is a tortured soul, a woman who simply cannot forgive herself for her past. And while she walks the earth doing her best to imitate a normal human being, she ultimately cannot hide the strangeness within her, the rage that builds where others do not.

The Lost Daughter is an absolute tour de force by both Olivia Colman and Maggie Gyllenhaal – a movie which could be mistaken to have been directed by a seasoned veteran rather than a directorial debut. The subtlety in performance is matched by deft camerawork and a keen eye for the sublime. It’s a tricky subject to tackle and often leaves you wondering whether you connect with Leda at all, but it seems that’s the point. She’s a woman on the margins of society who still hasn’t found her place. But maybe there’s hope for her yet.

Rating: ★★★★