It took two Israeli producers and actor Maggie Gyllanhaal, as scriptwriter and director — along with a pretty fabulous cast — to adapt “The Lost Daughter” by pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante, turning this tale of complicated motherhood into a film both riveting and disturbing.
The film is currently playing in Israel’s United movie theaters and will be available on Netflix — outside Israel — as of December 31.
The wonderful Olivia Colman — known to us all as the middle-aged monarch Elizabeth in “The Queen,” among other roles — is Leda, an English professor on vacation in Greece, clearly valuing her freedom during a working trip.
She’s thrown off from her beachside scribblings by the arrival of a loud, brassy Greek clan from Queens. Despite her obvious annoyance, she’s curious about some of its members, peering over at Nina (a smoldering Dakota Johnson), a sexy but attentive twenty-something mom who lays on a nearby chaise while her young daughter plays nearby.
Nina’s moments with her child throw Leda into a series of flashbacks as a young mother (Jessie Buckley, crystallizing our image of a young Leda), as she struggles to balance the demands of two small children with her own deadlines as an ambitious academic.
The film then takes some unexpected twists as Leda finds herself more entangled with Nina and her family, and we’re taken down the precarious, complicated path Leda took as a young mother.
It couldn’t have been easy to turn Ferrante’s 2006 novel into a mainstream film, but that was the challenge for Gyllanhaal, along with producers Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Handelsman-Keren of Pie Films.
The three first met through working on “The Kindergarten Teacher,” the award-winning film written by Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, and which Kleinhandler then wanted to adapt to a New York setting, starring Gyllanhaal, who quickly agreed.
“If we hadn’t met Maggie in ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ and had such a strong connection, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Kleinhandler, an American by birth. “We met someone who we believed in, and that connection gave birth to this movie.”
At one lunch, the two producers asked Gyllanhaal if she’d ever considered directing a film.
As an answer, she marched them over to a local bookstore in Greenwich Village and bought them Ferrante’s “Days of Abandonment,” their first read by the author.
After reading — and loving — the novel, it took time to track down the Italian publisher. He was enthusiastic, but not about “Days of Abandonment,” which had a complicated rights arrangement. He recommended reading “The Lost Daughter,” an earlier and lesser-known Ferrante novel considered the root of her later novels.
“We loved it,” said Handelsman-Keren. “We all felt it was a good book to adapt, with that kind of truth of the female experience that Ferrante brings is very present in ‘The Lost Daughter.'”
That said, it wasn’t an easy book to adapt, said Handelsman-Keren.
“It’s part of the brilliance of Maggie as a writer that she adapted it into a script that is so moving and really builds into this,” added Handelsman-Keren. “There’s so much attention in the script and film and Maggie really tapped into that.”
They all felt the stars had aligned after Colman signed on for the film, followed by Johnson and the rest of the cast. Both Colman and Johnson have both spoken about wanting to visit Israel — “they’re all dying to come,” said Handelsman-Keren.
For the two producers whose films include Lapid’s “Synonyms” and “Ahed’s Knee” as well as the award-winning “Bethlehem” and “The Women’s Balcony,” “The Lost Daughter” is another in their growing list of English-language films, which requires them to develop the ideas “from scratch,” said Kleinhandler, rather than being pitched an idea from a writer or director, which tends to be the Israeli way of making films.
“It’s our nature to be all-consuming, and we try to do things we care about,” she said. “It’s about making sure you are part of the creative process, and helping each movie become what you would love it to be.”
They tend to be passionate about their projects, said Handelsman-Keren, and generally share the same taste.
That passion can mean long lead times for some films, like their new female ensemble “My Happy Ending,” starring Andie MacDowell, most recently of Netflix’s “Maid,” and based on the Israeli play, “Sof Tov” by Anat Gov.
MacDowell plays a Hollywood star who finds herself in a British hospital room with three other women, in the film directed by an Israeli team, Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit.
It took eight years to get this one off the ground, said Handelsman-Keren, as they decided to turn the play into an English-language movie with two Israeli directors.
“I like to think that what we bring is a lot of experience as producers in different projects that took a lot to get off the ground,” said Kleinhandler. “The way we made movies in Israel prepared us in a way. What we offer is a supportive system to create and it’s always built on relationships.”
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