Monday, November 29, 2021


 by Rob DiCristino

In which actors get behind the camera.

The Lost Daughter (2021, Dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal)

However great or small our sins might be, we all have our share of regrets. It’s a curious thing, regret. It’s a kind of dull self-loathing that lacks shape or direction. It doesn’t have the focus of anger or the anguish of defeat. It doesn’t burn. It doesn’t overwhelm. Regret just sort of exists alongside us as we go about our days, a nagging echo reminding us of everything we should have said, every path we should have taken, and every choice we can’t take back. Regret is the throughline of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, a sleepy and contemplative character piece based on Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name. Olivia Coleman is Leda, an introverted literature professor whose quiet Grecian holiday is interrupted by the arrival of a gregarious, multi-generational family of New Yorkers who seem to feed on chaos and soap operatics. Though matriarch Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk) is a more age-appropriate companion, Leda finds herself drawn instead to the enigmatic Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter, Elena.
Nina is young, beautiful, and a bit lost — a bit overwhelmed by her tempestuous daughter and her jealous husband (The Invisible Man’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Toni). Observing Nina between sips of wine, Leda finds her thoughts drifting back to her own early motherhood, when she (played in flashbacks by Jessie Buckley) was a young academic attempting to balance the demands of her career with those of her daughters, Bianca and Martha. Bored by domesticity and unable to feel true connection with her girls, Leda begins an affair with Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard) and drifts away from her family before returning three years later. Nina, in the present, is having her own dalliance with college student Will (Paul Mescal). She knows this will destroy her marriage — and perhaps threaten her life — but it could be just the catalyst that she needs to feel again. Gyllenhaal’s hazy cross-cutting between these events and those in the past creates a dreamlike symmetry between them, as if Leda is watching her life all over again.
As Leda and Nina draw closer together, they struggle to cope with the reality of their transgressions and all that damned regret that they provoke. There’s still time for Nina — whom Johnson imbues with just the right mix of womanhood and innocence — and other films might have cast Leda as the wizened voice of maternal logic, the atoner who finds absolution by helping a kindred spirit. But The Lost Daughter does something much more interesting when it allows Leda to sit in the truth of her actions. Being away from her daughters “felt amazing,” she tells Nina. Nothing will change that, and there’s no sense in denying it just because she now finds herself aching to connect with them as adults. Olivia Coleman brings all the gravitas we expect from the Oscar winner, and the synergy Gyllenhaal is able to draw out with Buckley — they are two sides of the same woman, two indulgent messes committing the same old sins in the same old ways — is the highlight of an otherwise subdued, languorous tone poem about the regret that haunts us all.

Passing (2021, Dir. Rebecca Hall)

Thundering Badass Rebecca Hall makes her own directorial debut this year with Passing, a similarly understated adaptation of the 1929 book by acclaimed Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen. Shot on black-and-white film stock in claustrophobic Academy ratio, Passing has all the makings of a novice filmmaker’s reach exceeding their grasp, a naked attempt at awards season notoriety by a seasoned industry professional seeking to skip their way up the ladder on prior merit. And while there’s always a costume design nomination hovering just ahead of any period piece, Passing more than earns its aesthetic choices by making them crucial to its storytelling: This is a story about shades of black and white, a story about constriction, about fitting into the confined spaces that society defines for us without our knowledge and often without our consent. When we meet our lead character, Irene (Tessa Thompson), she has been stamped down by these constrictions — squeezed into racial, sexual, and cultural definitions that may one day overwhelm her.
Passing’s first act unfolds subtly, as Irene carefully navigates a downtown Manhattan neighborhood and makes her way to lunch at an upscale hotel. With each step, Irene scans her surroundings for folks who might notice her darker complexion under the blooming hat she’s so carefully positioned on her head. Though she hails from Harlem and works tirelessly for the advancement of African-American arts and culture, Irene (who, like Thompson, is mixed-race) can pass — hence the title — for white. It’s an occasional necessity for Irene, but it’s a way of life for Clare (Ruth Negga), the childhood friend with whom she has a chance encounter. While Irene is married to a black doctor (Andre Holland as Brian) and lives as posh a life as Harlem will allow, the brassy Clare has chosen to marry a white banker (Alexander Skarsgard as John) and live the true “Good Life” as a white woman. As Irene and Clare rekindle their lost friendship, both women must face the limitations of their choices and confront the inner yearnings they’ve tried so hard to deny.

Together with cinematographer Eduard Grau, Rebecca Hall flawlessly evokes filmmaking styles common in the early Hollywood era (era), using the vertical composition and stark shifts in focus necessary to bring life to her archaic palette. Thompson and Negga bring their own turn-of-the-century energy to the piece, getting some real mileage out of period-appropriate slang (“Rot!”) and building a firm but playful contrast between their characters’ ways of life. Clare’s vivaciousness creates a rift between Irene and her husband, both of whom find themselves perversely engrossed in her misadventures (There’s a strong homoerotic subtext in Passing, suggesting that the title refers to more than just the women’s racial identities). Negga’s is the louder, more provocative performance, but Thompson’s dignified, incremental shifts are more interesting to watch. Though it’s too slight in its execution to be a major Oscar contender, Passing is an assertive debut for Rebecca Hall, adding another layer of thunder to her aforementioned badassery.

The Lost Daughter comes to Netflix on December 31st. Passing is available on Netflix now.

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