by Rob DiCristino
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.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.
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.
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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