“It seems,” writes philosopher Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel, “we may best be able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there.” That’s Leda Caruso’s (Oscar Best Actress Olivia Colman) problem—or one of them. A 48-year-old professor of Italian literature, she’s on vacation on a Greek island, no doubt with images of palm trees, a lone umbrella on a pristine beach, and the perfect beach house circulating in her head. She finds something else. The beach house is fine, except that the fruit in the basket is rotting underneath, she wakes up to find a large black bug on her pillow—and a falling pine cone tears a nasty hole in her back.
The beach is also fine—for about ten minutes, until the Greeks and the crowd from Queens arrive, loud and aggressive, blocking the view, taking over, invading the space. When asked to move her umbrella to make room for the newcomers, Leda refuses, defending her territory and her vanishing privacy. Worse still, the women from Queens come with young children, including one on the way, triggering memories—not all pleasant—of Leda’s years as a young mother of two daughters (now 23 and 25—then, as we see in flashbacks, 5 and 7). An acute if enigmatic observer, Leda can’t take her eyes off Nina and her clingy, demanding, emotional, tearful, out-of-control daughter, 6- or 7-year-old Elena. “Children,” Leda tells the first-time pregnant Callie, “are a crushing responsibility.”
We’re in Elena Ferrante country (first-time director Maggie Gyllenhaal wrote the script based on a Ferrante novel), revisiting the story of thwarted female ambition, will, and desire. In this case, thwarted not so much by dominant men, as in the Ferrante-based television series, “My Brilliant Friend,” but by motherhood, by child-rearing, by the constant presence of children. In these days of helicopter parents and a return to motherhood as a sine qua non, it’s rare for literature to take on the ways in which parenthood can thwart the soul and identity of a person. Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard starkly presents the tension between self and parent in his autobiographical “My Struggle,” and Rachel Cusk, the award-winning British author, was pilloried for her “A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother,” in which she posits parenthood can be stifling. In her defense, Cusk said, “I was only being honest.”
Leda has her own version of Nina’s difficult Elena, and she’s brought it with her to the island.
As we see in flashbacks, in which Leda is played, as a younger and more beautiful woman, by the captivating Irish actress Jessie Buckley (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” 2020), Leda has her own version of Nina’s difficult Elena, and she’s brought it with her to the island. Like Ferrante’s other heroines, Lila Cerulli and Elena Greco, Leda needs space—physical space, emotional space—to create and define herself, to construct a satisfying life. Joyful moments with her children are not necessarily outside that frame, as the recurring symbol of the orange-peel snake suggests. But Bianca (Robyn Elwell), Leda’s older child, will not or cannot physically separate from her mother; she pushes her, punches her, strikes her in the face, interrupts a masturbatory moment, disputes Lena’s authority, and insists on her constant attention—denying her mother the modicum of bodily integrity she needs to maintain her psychic equilibrium, not to mention do a bit of scholarly writing. Leda’s well-meaning husband (Jack Farthing) isn’t much help.
All of this spills out not only in Leda’s early life, when attendance at an academic conference proves an elixir, satisfying some of her intellectual and sexual needs, but also at her resort retreat, where memories of those child-rearing years, stimulated by the arrival of the American women (Dakota Johnson and Dagmara Dominczyk are familiar, pushy, nosey types as Nina and her aunt Callie, the “real housewives” of Queens) saturate her experience, with Leda awkwardly, but poignantly and honestly, assessing her own troubled, child-rearing past, and trying to figure out what parts of it she can share with her island acquaintances. “I’m an unnatural mother,” she acknowledges to Nina, who senses a piece of herself in Leda. Some of this talk can seem strange, or bizarre, or bordering on irrelevance, as does Leda’s description of her breasts, and the breasts of her grown children, at a first restaurant dinner with her new friend, the much younger but somehow fascinated Will (another Irish actor, Paul Mescal from the TV mini-series, “Normal People”). But by and large Leda’s sharing, gradual and partial though it is, works—until it doesn’t. For a good while, a missing child, then a missing doll, are at the center of the drama.
Films can succeed with different people playing the same person, one younger, one older. It worked with critical success in 2016’s Oscar winner “Moonlight,” with three actors who looked very different. Even though, age notwithstanding, Colman is not the fetching Buckley, it works here, with Colman projecting a powerful, engaging, vulnerable interiority, and Buckley an irrepressible youthful desire and enthusiasm, deeply troubled and frustrated by her restricted circumstances while doing her best to be an adequate mother. And there’s just a touch of physical similarity.
Gyllenhaal’s nuanced, thoughtful, quirky, contained, sometimes surprising, and carefully constructed screenplay brings these performances together. The result is a film that for some will seem an unfair and unjust indictment of children and mothering and, for others—a revelation.
Date: December 31, 2021
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Starring: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Dagmara Dominczyk, Paul Mescal, Robyn Elwell, Jack Farthing, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard
Country: Greece, United Kingdom, Israel, United States
Languages: English, Italian, Greek
Runtime: 121 minutes
Other Awards: 17 wins, including Gyllenhaal for Best Screenplay, and 80 nominations
Availability: Streaming on Netflix only; for updates, see JustWatch here.
Lead image: Nina (Dakota Johnson), like Leda, has a daughter she both loves and needs separation from.