As an actor, Maggie Gyllenhaal has been attracted to (and done some of her best work in) roles of considerable moral ambiguity, such as Sherrybaby, The Kindergarten Teacher, Secretary, or cable series The Deuce. So it figures that for her directorial debut she would choose a story about a female protagonist who’s “complicated” to the point of almost repelling sympathy—and that she would take the job seriously enough to give that role to someone else. (While it’s not always true, odds that an actor’s first directing project will turn out an insufferable vanity project greatly increase when they insist on starring in it, too.)
The Lost Daughter is from a novella by Elena Ferrante, written before that mysterious author (publishing under a pseudonym, their real identity remains unknown) became an international phenomenon with the Neapolitan Novels. Gyllenhaal’s script is very faithful, apart from making some principal characters English, Irish, or American rather than Italian, to accommodate the casting and dialogue. Leda (Olivia Colman) is a middle-aged professor of literature taking a working holiday (she’s working on a book, though that’s downplayed in the film) in a small resort town on Greece’s Ionian coast, where she’s rented a flat from a cautiously flirtatious manager (Ed Harris). More flattering are the polite solicitations of a cute young lifeguard-attendant (Paul Mescal from Normal People). Still, she is content to keep primarily to herself.
Her daily solo beach idyll is almost immediately disrupted by a clan of boorish Jersey Shore types. But among them she detects a goddess: Model-looking Nina (Dakota Johnson), who attracts Leda perhaps because she seems a more glamorous version of her own younger, maternally overwhelmed self. When Nina’s daughter goes missing, causing general panic, she is found by Leda, who had already managed to antagonize the large, noisy family but now gets embraced as their savior.
The two women’s tentative friendship stirs disturbing memories of Leda’s own messy parenting of two daughters in her twenties (she’s played then by Jessie Buckley), when her stalled career was boosted by more-than-collegial interest from a superstar academic (Peter Sarsgaard, the director’s spouse). Then there’s the matter of our thorny protagonist’s impulsive theft of a doll whose absence causes Nina’s child great distress. She means to return it, but somehow keeps not doing so. What’s her game? Does she even know herself? The best Leda can do to explain her own actions is admit “I’m a very unnatural mother.”
Few things spur deeper dislike than the recognition that a woman with children lacks “maternal instinct,” and that is precisely the fire Ferrante plays with here. Gyllenhaal and Colman (as well as the excellent Buckley) somewhat soften the astringency of the character in the novel, whose psychological study is as clinically detached as one by Marguerite Duras. Nonetheless, this is an inherently disturbing portrait, heightened by the thriller-like emphasis on the potential peril Leda’s behavior invites. (It’s suggested the clan Nina has married into are “bad people,” perhaps in organized crime.)
On the one hand, she is a person of intellect and ambition who understandably refused to let conventional notions of “a woman’s duty” constrain her. On the other, she is confessedly “selfish,” inconsistent, at times weird, and contrary—an alien amongst less complicated, less solitary types. This discomfiting but very accomplished drama, beautifully acted by all, announces Maggie Gyllenhaal not just as a capable director, but one equipped to render notably difficult, delicate, potentially off-putting material accessibly involving. The Other Daughter opens in theaters this Fri/17, then begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 31.
Other new releases this weekend:
Another literary adaptation is Guillermo del Toro’s latest, a starry remake based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. It was immediately successful enough to generate a major-studio film the very next year. But while that film (starring and produced by 20th Century Fox’s then-top attraction Tyrone Power) has its strengths, it was too glossy and censor-skittish to fully capture the seamy source material.
The Mexican del Toro is a significant talent who’s elevated several genre films, though I’ll admit that his highly regarded “serious” films (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) still seemed like glorified monster movies to me. Ergo Nightmare looked very promising, as it offered some of the macabre narrative elements he favors without the fantastical ones he’s hitherto never quite escaped. And to a point, this does play like an ideal match of director and project.
Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, a transient at the end of the Great Depression years who stumbles into a carnival, and discovers he’s got a knack for its particular brand of huckster showmanship. He’s mentored by the carny boss (Willem Dafoe) and a fake telepathy act (Toni Collette, David Strathairn). From them he picks up enough tricks of the trade to figure he can break into the “big time,” taking along the carnival’s resident ingenue (Rooney Mara). Their success doing a glammed-up version of the older couple’s “psychic” routine at ritzy nightclubs lures in some wealthy suckers, including Richard Jenkins as a paranoid tycoon. It also attracts a “respectable” fellow predator (Cate Blanchett, doing a gorgeous abstraction of the classic noir femme fatale) who pulls her own grifts under the cover of psychoanalysis. Stanton is clever, but he can be outmatched, and stepping out of his league proves his downfall.
Richly atmospheric, with ravishing period detail, and superbly cast (support players include Ron Perlman, Mary Steenbergen, Clifton Collins Jr., and Tim Blake Nelson), Nightmare Alley is terrific for its first hour or more. Del Toro is able to utilize the story’s more sordid aspects in ways that weren’t possible in 1947, while at the same time his usual warmth towards “freakish” outsiders renders the pulpy tenor more affectionate than cynically cruel. But once the not-especially-inspired mechanizations of a suspense plot kick in around the halfway point, things begin to bog down—resulting in a movie that would’ve been great at 100 minutes but really outstays its welcome at 150. The bleakly ironical fadeout reverts to Gresham’s original vision (74 years ago they had to paste on a very Hollywood “happy ending”), yet this overlong version underlines that while Alley may be a ripping good yarn, its lurid melodrama lacks the depth of tragedy. It opens in theaters nationwide Fri/17.
Margrete: Queen of the North
Intrigue beyond the imagining of Alley’s small-timers is afoot in this historical epic, which with refreshing honesty starts out admitting it’s “Fiction inspired by real events.” Perhaps last seen by US arthouse patrons as the singing trainwreck in Nico, 1988, Danish actress Trine Dyrholm here plays an entirely different sort of deceased celebrity: Europe’s first significant female ruler, who singlehandedly orchestrated a long-lasting peace between Nordic countries for the first time in centuries. After a brief childhood prologue, we meet this Margrete I of Denmark in 1402. She is widely known as the real power behind the throne of her adopted son Eric (Morten Hee Andersen), whose imminent betrothal to an English princess should secure another powerful treaty with which to combat marauding Germans.
At first, actress turned director (primarily of TV programs) Charlotte Sieling’s film looks like it will be that most boring possible historical movie: One about a wise, peacemaking monarch whose reign is marked by unity and prosperity. But trouble soon arises. A man (Jakob Oftebro) surfaces claiming to be Olaf, the biological son Margrete was told died of plague sixteen years earlier; he says he was kidnapped and held prisoner in secret all that time. This upset arrives at a delicate moment, dividing her court and allies (many of whom had always taken umbrage at a woman’s command), providing sustenance to her enemies.
Queen of the North takes great liberties with a historical record in which it is considerably clearer this “False Olaf” was, indeed, an impostor. But while a bit conventional in style, the film offers juicy court skullduggery that keeps widening and complicating until all northern Europe’s stability is at stake. With good production values and a solid cast (also including Soren Malling as the church’s primary representative), it’s a 15th-century drama that proves major-league politics haven’t changed much—they’re still a blood sport. Samuel Goldwyn Films is releasing it to On Demand platforms Fri/17.
Revolution Of Our Times
21st-century politics are fully on ugly display in this excellent if often grueling documentary by Kiwi Chow, many of whose crew (like the identity-obscured onscreen activists) had to go uncredited for their own safety. It’s about the ongoing pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, where the mainland Chinese government continues to ride roughshod over the conditions agreed upon in the territory’s 1997 “handover” from British rule. At first Beijing claimed local autonomy would be preserved, but the transition to full democracy would take longer than expected. Eventually they dropped that ruse, and now claim they are no longer bound by the terms of the original agreement.
Things went from bad to worse with the introduction of the notorious “Extradition Bill” in 2019. It triggered widespread protests, one rally drawing nearly one-third of Hong Kong’s entire 7 million population. The mainland Communist government and its local puppets’ unbending response to this unprecedented outpouring “taught us that peaceful protests are useless,” as one activist puts it. So activism ramped up, targeting collaborationist businesses, forcing labor strikes by blocking transit routes, and so forth. In return, police brutality (sometimes abetted by gangsters) and suspicious alleged protestor “suicides” greatly increased.
Revolution limits itself primarily to the events of 2019—since then, the government has used COVID as an excuse to clamp down even more on public assembly. That year’s events culminated in a 16-day siege at a university, many of whose participants ultimately had to flee the country entirely. Their “leaderless” movement, heavy on youth involvement but also that of seniors, is seen using technology to cleverly evade police capture. But we also witness the violence increasingly marshaled against them, as well as reporters. There is little question: This is a totalitarian coup in progress.
There’s also little question that this long (152 minutes) but riveting document is unabashedly partisan. The “other side’s” point of view, however, is amply represented in terms of official lies and hypocrisies. Is China simply too big a global economic power now to be opposed by other political powers? Perhaps. But even if theirs is a doomed struggle it’s impossible not to admire the principled courage that keeps the pro-democracy activists here fighting, despite great personal risk. Revolution Of Our Times is playing Roxie Theater this Sat-Sun. (Dec. 18-19) and next (Dec. 25-26), with more shows possibly TBA (more info here).