You don’t have to look too close to appreciate that The Lost Daughter is not an Olivia Colman single hander. There are some very good performances to be seen from Ed Harris and Dakota Johnson. But Colman is a tour de force relating a very complex character and it somewhat puts others in the shade.

Leda (Olivia Colman) is a professor taking some time off in Greece staying in hired lodgings. Shown around by an American Lyle (Ed Harris), it’s a spacious abode with good access to the beach. Which she duly takes advantage of walking and reading.

Its tranquil until an extended family of Americans arrive to, for her, spoil things. Her looks are snooty (and noted by the family). To make matters worse she refuses to move to another area so the family can be together. However she gets into their good books when she finds Nina’s (Dakota Johnson) daughter who got herself lost.

This triggers a memory of when she lost one of her daughters. This in turn leads to extended flashbacks of her younger self (Jessie Buckley) her two young daughters and trying to cope and make the best of the success of her early academic career.

She sees some of these frustrations in Nina with her daughter and family about whom she is warned are bad people. Nevertheless she develops a wary acquaintance with Nina who opens up, a little. Though it quickly becomes clear that Leda’s options aren’t open to Nina; her family exert huge control with an overhanging threat of violence.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut is an adaptation, co-written with the author of the novel Elena Ferrante, (which I haven’t read) and it’s an assured one. The setting is beautiful and perfect for (perversely) telling a story about very imperfect people.

The focus is on Leda and with the evidence we are presented with she had difficulties with her young children, with little thought for anything other than herself and career. But it’s more complicated than that as there are choices available to her if not easy or right ones.

Leda and Nina are in some ways similar to Gemma Arterton’s Tara in The Escape which deals with similar subject matter. That was partially improvised where you get the feeling that Gyllenhaal was much stricter here with the development of characters and story. The direction is far tighter with Gyllenhaal ruthlessly focusing in on the actors’ faces and actions.

Colman and Buckley are superb playing a character that is riven with contradictions and frustration, doubt and guilt. In their hands we get to understand Leda and her decisions. Whether you agree or warm to her is another matter. There’s no real steer from Gyllenhaal and Ferrante regarding this complex character.

Overall, however much sympathy you have for the situations that they all got themselves into, be it lovers, marriage and children these aren’t very warm characters. In that sense this is a surgical character study that’s very well executed, enveloping and justifies its two hours or so.

The Lost Daughter is in cinemas from 17 December and on Netfilx from 31 December.

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