This movie is based on a book by Elena Ferrante. After watching the movie, I want nothing more than to read her novel. I mean that to be intended as both praise and criticism. The director, Maggie Gyllenhaal, takes several swings. Some work, some don’t. And some feel lost in translation. That loss in translation happens with many books that are adapted to a screen medium. I have yet to read the book, but I have an inclination that this story is better served as literature.
Kudos to Maggie Gyllenhaal for delivering the movie with the most tense vibe since Uncut Gems. I am unable to pinpoint exactly how she crafted the cringey tone, but she mastered it. I felt genuinely uncomfortable watching the story play out on screen. And that’s the key: I felt something. I’m eager to see where Gyllenhaal takes her skills in developing movie pathos next.
While the expert sense of cringe is my main takeaway, the score saves the movie. It’s a safety net. It feels alternative, indie, and bluesy. It’s like Alicia Keys dabbled in Creed, while crossing over into BlacKkKlansman.
Ultimately, the music reflects the prismatic nature of the main character, Leda. The trio (Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, and Dakota Johnson) unlock different aspects of the Leda character. Colman is the blues. Buckley is the indie. Johnson is the alternative. And blended together, they tell a story about motherhood greater than any of their individual narrative arcs.
Olivia Colman, in particular, is on an absolute tear in this movie when she’s either singing like the most human person ever, or acting like a frightening sociopath devoid of all humanity. The adult Leda seems ripped from a Patricia Highsmith novel. I have to ask: did Leda and Ripley secretly meet in Greece?
Gyllenhaal takes some swings. The back-and-forth storytelling is a huge miss. I prefer my flashback structure in the Godfather II mold. It’s a dizzying decision done to signal character over story. The back-and-forth probably plays out better in book form. The choice also highlights the plot problems in the third act, specifically, the confrontation scene between Olivia Colman’s and Dakota Johnson’s characters. The naturalism built up through Jessie Buckley’s Leda is sorta thrown away by Olivia Colman in that moment with her “play-this-clip-for-my-Oscar-nomination” speech. I’m not sure exactly how to solve the third act either without disrupting the flashback sequences entirely. The ending just doesn’t land. Redemption seems so unattainable for so long, that when it is delivered, it just feels like a cheat.
But I absolutely cannot get past the doll obsession. It began as symbolism and totally soured into a punchline. By the end, I was audibly laughing whenever Colman had the doll in her hands. I’m not sure if it was intended to undercut the tension or not. I find it too heavy-handed. Again, the movie just started to slip away in the third act.
I would love to see Maggie Gyllenhaal direct/produce another installment of Leda (playing Ripley) vacationing somewhere else as a curiosity.