The Lost Daughter (2021)

Being a mother is a crushing responsibility.

First-time director Maggie Gyllenhaal takes on Italian author Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel The Lost Daughter and fashions a particularly literary kind of cinema. More concerned with impressions and symbolism than fashioning a straightforward narrative, Gyllenhaal leaves the viewer with a distinct feeling of character over plot. For a creation as adult and cerebral as it is visceral and indistinct, Gyllenhaal’s instinct to leave many matters unresolved or unexplained gives gravitas to the film but also asks the viewer to work hard to connect with the characters despite their inscrutability.

Olivia Colman plays Leda Caruso, a professor of comparative literature at a distinguished American university who is taking a working holiday in Greece. Reveling in the peace of the idyllic beachside villa, her holiday is abruptly interrupted by a large American-Greek family who take up all of the seafront with their seemingly crass and careless ways. Leda observes the family with a mixture of disdain and fascination. She is particularly interested in a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who seems to be suffering in an unhappy marriage and is struggling with her daughter.

Paradice or purgatory?

In observing Nina, Leda’s thoughts are cast back to when she was a young mother and upcoming scholar (here played by Jessie Buckley). A parallel narrative runs across the film as we see the young Leda feeling suffocated by her position as a mother and the older Leda as she projects her past onto those she’s watching, especially Nina.

Leda is a slippery character. She’s not likable, but nor is she awful. In her present-day incarnation, her motives for doing things seem hard to fathom. Instead of being affable, she is, at turns, deliberately difficult, leading to her getting off on the wrong foot with the nominal head of the “invading” family, Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk). When Nina’s daughter goes missing for a short period of time, it is Leda who finds her and returns her to the fold, an act that goes mostly ignored by the family. Her next choice, to take the child’s beloved doll, is one that confounds. Is Leda punishing a child for being a supposed burden on her mother? Or is Leda punishing the mother by making the child even more distressed? Gyllenhaal never gives a clear answer to this question.

I won’t go anywhere

As we are taken back to Leda as a young mother, we can sense her seething frustration. Her two young daughters, Bianca (Robyn Elwell) and Martha (Ellie Blake), are positioned as being overwhelming in their desire for attention, and Leda’s husband, Joe (Jack Farthing), seems to be almost invisible to her. Leda’s subjectivity is the only understanding the audience is given, and as the film expands, it becomes clear that Leda herself is an unreliable narrator — caught in the act of unknowing, perhaps accidentally, or perhaps deliberately.

As a young woman, Leda is attracted to a life of intellectual stimulation but also has a sensuality to her that is only matched when she meets the acclaimed academic Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard). The quotidian nature of her homelife sits in sharp contrast to the heady rush she feels at being seen by Hardy. It seems ironic later on when we encounter the older Leda, who spends a lot of her time observing others; although what she sees through the prism of her own experience and often times feels tainted by what we come to know of the character.

A crisis for motherhood.

For all its interiority, The Lost Daughter is exquisitely shot by cinematographer Hélène Louvart, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020). The Greek island Leda is holidaying on is given paradoxically uninhibited spaces and claustrophobic ones depending on Leda’s state of mind. Gyllenhaal and Louvart work wonders directing and lensing the piece to provide some exteriority to the extremely psychological nature of the film. Small objects such as an orange peel become powerful metaphors for Leda’s personality. Gyllenhaal exhibits an incredible economy in creating Leda out of gestures. What Leda says can’t always be trusted, but her body language and gaze are the locus to understanding what she is really feeling.

Olivia Colman, The Favorite (2018), gives a terrific performance as the older Leda. There are moments when her reactions to situations make one feel they are watching a horror film. Her nervous energy speaks to threats real and perceived. Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose (2018), who is shaping up to be one of the brightest talents currently working in the industry, gives the young Leda the exact amount of yearning and frustration to inform why she feels so lost as a wife and mother. Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), as Nina is an interesting case; for a character who is so much a projection of other people’s desires, Johnson allows the part to have a certain anonymity. Nina isn’t really who she says she is, but nor is she the person other people believe her to be, and in effect, to a point, Johnson is playing a cipher, which is incredibly challenging.

Why do we do the things we do?

The Lost Daughter is heavy with literary metaphor and may not please those looking for a film that explains itself. For all the time we spend with Leda, we never truly grasp who she is, even with the backstory that attempts to illuminate at least part of her character. Gyllenhaal’s film is challenging but rewarding — it’s a partial psychological profile of what could be termed a common feeling amongst mothers, which is the loss of self. Perhaps the loss of self, and the finding of a new self, is why Leda is so hard to pin down. Nonetheless, if one is willing to make the effort to embrace the fractured nature of the protagonist, The Lost Daughter is a puzzle that, although not entirely solvable, is rich in its complexities.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Nadine Whitney

The Lost Daughter is currently streaming on Netflix