As Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut opens, a woman staggers—possibly injured, possibly drunk —and collapses on the beachfront. A flashback begins immediately: earlier that summer, Lena (Olivia Coleman) arrives for a peaceful “working holiday” in Greece. A respected academic in Cambridge, Massachusetts (code for Harvard), she moves with an easy smile and acerbic laugh, interacting with hotel staff and other guests as little and as breezily as she can. Her tranquillity is shattered by the arrival of a large, loud family – notably young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter Elena. The ceaseless, shrill screams of children bring Lena back to her early days as a mother when she (now a brilliantly cast Jessie Buckley) struggled to bring up two daughters and advance her academic career; her husband had no such concerns.
With this third timeline fracture, The Lost Daughter becomes a claustrophobic meditation on the unspoken ugliness of motherhood: the frustrations, the lost freedoms, and the fact that even the deepest love for children does not guarantee peace or satisfaction. Coleman and Buckley are an ideally matched double act, uniting Leda with a fire in the gut. Her academic brilliance, worldly savviness, and joie de vie run up against mundane responsibilities and careless interruptions, and neither actress is afraid to bring out the petty or vindictive in Leda’s responses. At the same time, Leda remains unendingly sympathetic, a flawed woman and “unnatural mother” whose dreams burn bright in her future and bolster her well-earned legacy.
Gyllenhaal has an assured eye for framing, centring her characters’ actions and reactions and guiding audiences through their changing perspectives. She captures the everyday brutality of Ferrante’s writing in her adapted screenplay without softening its caustic edge; characters pass cruel and casual judgement on each other without care for justification or forgiveness. Transitions between the timelines are seamless, with past and present sometimes coexisting symbiotically, but more often parasitically.
The sound mixing is where The Lost Daughter shines. Conversations are conducted naturalistically, and Dickon Hinchliffe (of Tindersticks fame) records a dynamic score that sweeps Leda through her holiday and back in time. But the film’s most memorable sounds are those of lawless humanity. In the present, Elena half speaks, half screams indecipherably, whacking Nina with small round fists before her mother can figure out her changing whims and obsessive memories. In the past, Leda’s two daughters – both of similar ages—do the same as their mother searches for words in her own world of translation and memorisation. There is no transcendence, no higher purpose in the care and shaping of young minds and beings—and certainly, such leeches cannot be called innocents. Love mixes with exhaustion as shrieks and yells come from all angles, at all times. The Lost Daughter never romanticises motherhood, nor does it excuse the desperate, callous decisions that can come of the struggles.
The Lost Daughter is ultimately an understated tale, no great changes result, and conflict remains in the domestic sphere, and revelations remain within Leda’s psyche – its shattering portrayal of everyday damage and fractured relationships. Maggie Gyllenhaal has marked herself a directorial voice to watch in her attention to human dynamics and her immense care and trust of her cast.
The Lost Daughter is available to stream on Netflix
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie