The Lost Daughter marks another directorial debut from a terrific actress. Earlier this year I saw Passing from Rebecca Hall, and this time it’s Maggie Gyllenhaal behind the camera and also wrote the script based on Elena Ferrante’s novel.
Olivia Colman plays Leda, a middle-aged professor of comparative literature vacationing in a Greek island. It’s never revealed where teaches at, though she said she lives in Cambridge, near Boston which means she likely teaches at Harvard. It’s clear from the way she carries her books and papers with her to the beach that she’s devoted to her work even during her vacation. But her wish for a quiet, peaceful holiday takes a different turn when a large boisterous family descends abruptly and practically takes over the entire beach.
Leda doesn’t hide her annoyance, in fact, when one family member asks her to move her chair, she wouldn’t budge. The disruption ends up with Leda getting to know some of the family members, notably Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk) who’s pregnant with her first child.
The topic of motherhood is clearly a point of focus, as Leda is fascinated by Callie’s sister Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother attending to her toddler daughter, Elena. One day, Elena was playing with her doll and the next minute she went missing, leaving Nina absolutely frantic. Now, given the film’s title, one would be inclined to think that the rest of the film is about this missing daughter. Well, without spoiling it for you, it’s actually so much more than that.
Even before Elena goes missing, just watching Nina being with her daughter brings back memories of Leda’s past. The film starts to shift back and forth between past and present, showing young 20-something Leda juggling post-graduate school while taking care of her two young daughters. The decision she made decades ago suddenly is back to haunt her.
I saw an interview with Gyllenhaal recently where she talks about society’s perceptions, expectations and even myth of motherhood that every mother absolutely loves being one. In many ways this film dispels the myth that motherhood is something every woman craves. It offers an honest portrayal of a mom who struggles with the responsibility that comes with raising kids, and perhaps feeling lost in the midst of it all.
Now it doesn’t mean the film excuses all of Leda’s misbehavior though, in fact it shows the consequence of a terrible thing she did to Nina’s family, involving Elena’s beloved doll. At the same time, it also doesn’t condemn Leda for her decision even if society at large would shun her for it.
I was immediately intrigued to see this because of the three main female cast, Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley. Well all of them lives up to the hype. It’s a trifecta of terrific performances. Leda is not exactly a sympathetic character but Colman makes her relatable and human. At times she is overwhelmed by her memories as much as Nina is often bombarded by her daughter’s demands for attention. I’m so thrilled to see Colman being on the forefront of the awards race once again, her range is astounding and this is a juicy role that’s not wasted on someone so talented.
Johnson is perfectly cast as well as a beautiful yet vulnerable young mom and the flashbacks shows some similarities between Nina and Leda’s younger self. Buckley is an actress I’ve only seen in a couple of things but she’s really impressive here. One can’t help but feel for her exasperation, likely feeling trapped by her responsibilities.
As for the notable male supporting cast, it’s always nice to see Ed Harris, especially in a rather playful role where he gets to sing and dance for a bit. Harris plays a playful innkeeper who takes a shine on Leda, though their relationship remains ambiguous. Gyllenhaal’s husband Peter Sarsgaard also has a small but memorable part as a scraggly but charming lecturer.
The fact that Gyllenhaal is an actress herself might have aided her in getting the kind of performances needed for the story. She has a good grasp on the story and imbues the film with mysterious & unsettling tone throughout. The visuals seems too dark at times and the Grecian island doesn’t look as lush and panoramic as one would expect, but I feel that it’s perhaps intentional on DP Hélène Louvart’s part. The rather gloomy look seems to match what Leda’s experiencing.
I’m still on the fence about the ending which feels a bit anticlimactic, but I appreciate the fact the unpredictability aspect and that Gyllenhaal keeps the suspense up until the end. Yes it’s slow going at times with not much happening, but it proves to be a rewarding experience. The Lost Daughter is a bold and even defiant film that tackles a taboo subject that’s rarely depicted on screen. That alone is quite a feat and it was directed with a deft hand. It’s impressive debut by all accounts and I definitely hope Maggie Gyllenhaal keeps on directing in the future.
Have you seen the latest THE LOST DAUGHTER? Let me know what you think!