The Lost Daughter review: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Olivia Colman embrace the thorniness of motherhood

Sadness is lanced through the heart of Gyllenhaal’s film, which she both adapted and directed, but it’s rich and luxurious in its texture

Clarisse Loughrey
Friday 17 December 2021 15:51
The Lost Daughter

Dir: Maggie Gyllenhaal. Starring: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris. 15, 122 minutes.

Olivia Colman makes even the most pedestrian emotions seem poetic. In The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, mild irritation is given the weight of grief – the cragged lines forming around a soured mouth. Her character Leda Caruso, a British academic who’s come to the Greek isle of Spetses with a suitcase full of books, has emerged from her foxhole of a rented apartment and the quiet company of its caretaker, Lyle (Ed Harris). Finally settled on her beach chair, ice cream in hand, Leda’s peace is violently interrupted by the arrival of a large family of Americans, all from Queens and all fuelled by a perpetual state of chaos.

It’s somewhat amusing that Gyllenhaal, in adapting this lesser-known Elena Ferrante novel from 2006, chose to switch the protagonist’s Neopolitan roots for British ones (specifically, Leeds). Her film leans naturally – perhaps unconsciously – into the cross-Atlantic clash of American vulgarity and British obstinacy. When one of the Americans, the pregnant Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), comes to ask whether she’d move her chair so her family can all sit together, Leda spits out a “no” that’s as sharp and sudden as a viper attack. That’s the wonderful thing about The Lost Daughter – it embraces thorniness. It treats it not as a personality flaw but as a badge of survival. Sadness is lanced through the heart of Gyllenhaal’s film, which she both adapted and directed, but it’s rich and luxurious in its texture.

Callie and Leda later make up. They talk a little about motherhood. Without much thought, the sentence “children are a crushing responsibility” slips from Leda’s tongue. Those words follow her for days, as if they’d formed a miniature raincloud over her head. When any shred of ambivalence towards motherhood is treated as some perverse secret, the self-imposed shame can start to eat away at a person. Gyllenhaal revels in the semi-fabulistic imagery of Ferrante’s writing: the bowl of fruit that turns out to be thick with maggots, or the cicada Leda finds half-dead and screaming on her pillow. It’s almost as if the natural world were in rebellion against her – she, who sees herself as a violation.

Leda is drawn to Callie’s sister-in-law, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her rambunctious daughter Elena. She always seems to be searching for something in the young mother’s kohl-rimmed eyes (and Johnson’s performance strikes the ideal balance between glamour and haughtiness). Leda wants to know how she’s perceived by Nina. Or how she’s perceived by Will (Normal People’s Paul Mescal), the handsome student working the beach bar. Or how Nina is perceived by Will. Even some small gesture of understanding could cut through the palpable tension between all parties. When Leda comes across Elena’s lost doll, why can’t she bring herself to give it back?

The younger Leda is played in flashback by Jessie Buckley, with natural forthrightness

The truth comes to light in a series of methodical flashbacks, shot by cinematographer Helene Louvart with a haziness that never invites in warmth. The younger Leda is played in these scenes by Jessie Buckley. We watch as her two daughters, both screaming terrors, force her to retreat into the corner of a room. Tiny hands grab at flesh and fabric. She cowers, her wavering voice still trying to carry on a conversation with a colleague on the phone. “I’m suffocating!” she cries, as Buckley's natural forthrightness grows increasingly frantic. Back in the present, Nina asks Leda about the years she’s spent since, separated from her daughters. “It felt amazing,” she replies. It’s not an easy emotion, no – but The Lost Daughter gives it some room to breathe.

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