The Lost Daughter (15)

In an early scene from actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s magnificent directorial debut, a scholar (Olivia Colman) shocks an expectant first-time mother by confiding “children are a crushing responsibility”.

Those words set the discomfiting and melancholic tone of The Lost Daughter, an exquisitely observed study of parenthood and self-preservation based on Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s 2006 book.

Drawing on her experience in front of the camera, Gyllenhaal coaxes a powerhouse central performance from Oscar winner Colman as an emotionally volatile woman of learning, who by her own anguished admission is “an unnatural mother”.

Flashbacks to salad days when her younger incarnation (Jessie Buckley) coolly contemplates abandoning her girls and marriage for an affair with a charismatic professor (Peter Sarsgaard) is a stern test of the actress’s ability to walk a tightrope between spiky selfishness and tearful desperation.

Gyllenhaal’s lean script upends expectations, notably in a tense final act when the chickens that come home to roost risk having their necks snapped.