Motherhood and its many conflicts, contradictions and complications is a topic little explored in film.

But it is an issue that is placed front and centre in The Lost Daughter, the directorial debut of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and an adaptation of Elena Ferrante's novel of the same name.

It stars Olivia Colman as Leda, a literature professor on a solo beach holiday in Greece who becomes fascinated by a young mother, played by Dakota Johnson.

The film addresses feelings of defiance, rage and frustration as it flashes back to Leda's own experiences as a mother, unravelling her troubled past, her relationship with the father of her children and her dealings with her now adult daughters.

"I think reading Ferrante, I feel like I had never heard some of these truthful things said out loud before, or written down before," Gyllenhaal, 44, says.

"And I was so stunned by that when I first started reading her, that I just read everything she wrote because I found it both disturbing and shocking, and also electrifying and really comforting, because it wasn't just me.

"Her books are flying off the shelves and women around the world and men, I think, [are relating.] You know, she broke an agreement that we had made culturally not to talk about any of this."

The this she is referring to is an idea of parenthood that is anything less than picture-perfect, and feelings of sacrifice, fury and resentment that are perhaps often held but little expressed.

"I keep thinking about Fleabag," Gyllenhaal adds, "and there's been a few pieces of work recently where you just go like, 'Whoa, I can't believe you said that out loud. But I totally know what you mean'. And it's so liberating, and it's so exciting.

"And I thought when I read the books, wouldn't it be wild, and wouldn't it be radical, to put these things up on screen and have them play in a communal setting.

"So instead of alone in your room with a book, you might be sitting next to your husband, or your mother or your sister or your daughter and have to have both a personal experience and a communal one at the same time."

Gyllenhaal and her leading lady Colman, who starred as the dreadful godmother in the aforementioned Fleabag, are both mothers themselves.

Gyllenhaal has two daughters with her husband the actor Peter Sarsgaard, who appears in the film, while Colman has children with her husband the writer and producer Ed Sinclair.

And it seems the material resonated deeply with both of them, even if they would never make the troubling choices that Leda does.

"It was interesting to play someone who's different to you," Colman, 47, says as she reflects on reading the script for the first time, "although mothers and all parents have these moments when they go, 'Oh God, what have I done with my life?'

"But she takes it to an extreme that I wouldn't do, but it was really honest and just a fascinating story.

"I think it's always important to see the human condition and the human struggle. That's how we learn, by looking at ourselves, seeing each other's stories as well.

"Art is always going to be desperately important if we ever want to further ourselves and learn from stuff.

"Motherhood is not a new thing has been invented recently, it's always been there, and so has parenthood and so it's weird, now that I've seen that in such honest forms, you think, 'Why the hell has this not happened before?'

"It's so helpful to so many people to be able to go, 'Thank God I'm not alone, and I have thought these sorts of things'. It's really important."

There is a moment in the film where Leda describes herself as "an unnatural mother", which feels slightly radical in a world where motherhood is still persistently fetishised and idealised and Gyllenhaal says she was interested in giving voice to parts of women's lived experiences that are rarely depicted.

"I feel like not just motherhood, but so much of my feminine experience in the world, I don't feel like I've very often seen it articulated honestly in film," she explains.

"And in fact, for so much of my life, I was seeing this sort of fantasy version and I wondered, 'Is there something wrong with me?' because I have a whole spectrum of other feelings going on here that I never see articulated.

"And that line about her saying she's an unnatural mother, I think it actually brings to mind 'What's a natural mother? And what does that mean?'"

Johnson's character Nina offers a look at motherhood in a different moment from Leda - a young woman struggling to wrangle with a demanding little girl while attempting to navigate a toxic relationship and carve out moments of personal rebellion.

"I was really interested in the honesty of the experience of women, whether it's being a woman or motherhood or being in a relationship or a partnership," the 32-year-old 50 Shades Of Grey star says.

"It gives space for women to be allowed to feel complicated feelings around womanhood and motherhood and to let them know that maybe it's OK, and you're not the only one.

"Everyone has complicated feelings around being a parent, whether you are one or you aren't one. It's just human. Being a human being is so complicated - why wouldn't we talk about that?

"I don't need to see the same depiction of five females that you see across cinema for all of time, the nerd or the sexy woman, or the mum, or the ugly woman, or the bad woman.

"What about if all of those women are in one woman, which is so much the truth of people, and beyond.

"There are infinite possibilities for who a person can be, and I'm interested in artists like Maggie who expose that and get you thinking and, yeah, maybe it makes you a little bit uncomfortable, but maybe you also identify a little bit."

The Lost Daughter is in cinemas now and also on Netflix.