The Lost Daughter Maggie Gyllenhaal Olivia Colman

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter simmers with rage

“Sacrifice runs parallel to this anger, as the film examines the variety of ways in which mothers are meant to efface their desires in the process of raising children.”

There’s no question in my mind that in adapting Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal has a firm and confident grasp of character and nuance. The text, structured in flashbacks and gazes, is deeply internal. Ferrante’s writing style is calculated but impulsive, often presupposing motive and reason through a highly flawed and subjective perspective. The easy choice would be to rely on some voice-over, but Gyllenhaal works instead with her actors. They say one thing when they mean another. 

In the film, Leda (Olivia Colman), a professor, vacations alone in Greece. She spends her days reading on the beach and is continually interrupted by a loud, brash family. Leda develops a fascination with a young, beautiful mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson) and grows closer to her throughout her vacation. Meanwhile, in flashbacks, a young Leda (played by Jessie Buckley) raises her young children and struggles to navigate motherhood and career. 

Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson in The Lost Daughter
Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson in The Lost Daughter

Unusually for a film centred on a feminine experience, the predominant emotion of the film is rage. Leda may be polite and collected, but she simmers with resentment. When she smiles, her eyes remain cold and unwelcoming. Her obsession with those around her festers with self-loathing, the push and pull between obligation and desire. She blames others for her mistakes and seeks to punish them. Her self-awareness means that she doesn’t go full scorched earth, but it’s obvious that her choices, often selfish or at the very least cryptic, allude to past wrongs and a desire to be punished herself.

Sacrifice runs parallel to this anger, as the film examines the variety of ways women — mothers in particular — are meant to efface their desires in the process of raising children. We see the various images of motherhood unveil very different core relationships and values, but there’s a common thread of self-effacing sacrifice. However, these gestures, rather than saintly and selfless, are painted as painful and difficult. Rather than viewed as something pure and beautiful, motherhood is treated almost as a punishment. Even in an “equal” relationship, it’s apparent that the woman is meant to bear the greater burden of responsibility. When and if she doesn’t, the moral weight of this decision renders her a social pariah.

These unfriendly notions are treated with incredible nuance and sensitivity in writing and performing. The film doesn’t soften any of these ideas to make them more palatable to a general audience, and it similarly doesn’t feel the need to over-explain what exactly is going on. Many of the tensions may go unsaid, but that doesn’t make them any less clear. The movie could not be more straightforward, which is a testament to Gyllenhaal’s respect for the text and her strength as a communicator. 

What makes this film so special is that it captures the particular understandings between strange women. The glances and gestures reveal hidden desires and anxieties. It captures the interiority of these interactions and their impact beautifully. It’s a film about the inner lives of women that eschews expectations and norms. It offers up women who are complicated and difficult without trying to soften them unnecessarily. It’s refreshing and daring.

Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter
Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter

However, despite all this, the film falters in one very crucial way: aesthetically. Though shot by one of our great living cinematographers Hélène Louvart (Pina, The Invisible Life, Never Rarely Sometimes Always), the movie looks very TV. While they aspired for a more naturalistic approach to very symbolic material, the film lacks completely memorable or evocative images in a text rich with ideas and motifs. The hand-held look doesn’t suit the material well at all; in the few instances of visual adventures, some textured close-ups meant to evoke intimacy — the shots feel, somehow, wrong: muddy, shaky and inarticulate. 

Is the film’s ugliness enough to ruin the experience? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly a disappointment. The Lost Daughter features some of the year’s very best performances, particularly Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley as Leda. The material is treated beautifully and packs an enormous punch. Walking out of the cinema made me genuinely angry, because it captured so potently so many of my fears and frustrations. If the film had a more confident visual sense, it would unquestionably be one of the year’s best. Instead, it lingers in the landscape of lost potential. 

The Lost Daughter opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 17. It premieres worldwide on Netflix on Dec. 31.

The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

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