Review: THE LOST DAUGHTER, Wrenching Treatise on Motherhood

Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, and Dakota Johnson star in a piercing drama, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: THE LOST DAUGHTER, Wrenching Treatise on Motherhood

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

Somewhere closer to the end than the beginning of writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s masterful adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s bestselling 2006 novel, The Lost Daughter, Leda Caruso (Oscar winner Olivia Colman), a British academic living in America and vacationing on a Greek island that time hasn’t quite forgotten, describes herself as an “unnatural mother” in a moment of self-reflection.

It’s a strange, brutal self-flagellation, but given what viewers have seen, heard, and experienced thus far in The Lost Daughter, it’s also bracingly honest, a painful self-assessment, a statement filled with regret, guilt, and shame at her inability, through biology or choice, to fit herself into the suffocating standards and overriding demands of motherhood.

We first meet Colman’s vacationing academic as she arrives at the Greek Island beach resort, books, notebooks, and loose, comfortable clothing in hand. Despite the obvious interest by the resort owner, Lyle (Ed Harris), and later, Will (Paul Mescal), a younger do-it-all handyman, Leda seems less interested in connecting romantically than in burying her head in her books and taking a mental and emotional sabbatical. There’s also a hint that Leda doesn’t see herself as potentially attractive to men her age or younger, not the first nor the last indication that Leda, for all of her fierce, strong-willed independence, can’t help but let societal expectations influence her behavior.

Leda’s idyllic beach resort vacation ends almost as abruptly as it begins when an obnoxiously loud, uncouth American family descends on the resort, asserting territorial dominance that Leda openly rejects. She literally refuses to move, causing some tension with the family’s de facto matriarch, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), among others. It’s Nina (Dakota Johnson), Callie’s younger sister-in-law and the mother of an attention-starved preteen, that piques Leda’s curiosity. As Leda observes the family and Nina specifically with an almost predatory concentration, Nina begins to reciprocate Leda’s ambiguous interest in her.

Later, in a nod to the novel’s title, Nina’s daughter disappears abruptly, sending the family into understandable panic. In the first of several narrative feints, however, the “lost daughter” doesn’t stay lost for long. It’s Leda who, relying on an intuitive understanding of children, discover’s the child’s location, helping to return her to Nina and thus ingratiating herself to Nina and the larger family. Leda’s act of superficial heroism, however, reveals something else about Leda, her own complex, contradictory feelings about motherhood (she’s a mother of two daughters in their mid-20s) and seeing Nina as a kindred spirit of sorts, begins to reveal not only more about who and what she is, but in convincing Nina of the rightness of her own life choices, an attempt to find justification for them.

Adapting Ferrante’s slim novel of interiority, Maggie Gyllenhaal avoids the usual pitfall of translating a written text to a digital skin (i.e., translation, not transcription). On its own, Ferrante’s first-person novel presents a significant challenge: How to bring Ferrante’s unstable, unreliable narrator to a primarily visual medium without relying on voice-over narration to stitch together various plot threads and elements.

Instead, Gyllenhaal relies on her best asset, Colman herself, a supremely versatile, expressive performer. And while Colman excels at bringing Leda’s richly textured emotional life to the surface, she’s also not afraid of leaning into dialogue-driven choices that reveal Leda as a less than sympathetic, even unlikeable figure who repeatedly gives into her worst, potentially self-destructive impulses.

Utilizing a nested flashback structure, Gyllenhaal shifts between present-day Leda (Colman) and a younger Leda (Jessie Buckley), revealing the life-changing choices Leda made in the past that have impacted, for better or for worse, present-day Leda. It’s in those scenes that Gyllenhaal excavates Leda’s personality-warping ambivalence toward motherhood, the “unnaturalness” she uses to describe herself later in the film.

Switching between moments of kindness and generosity towards her young daughters to anger or even rage at their constant imposition on her time and focus, Gyllenhaal paints a devastating, if no less, authentic picture of messiness inherent in motherhood. Leda tries to have it all, a family and a career, and ultimately does more harm than good to herself and others.

A talented, if oft underappreciated, performer herself, Gyllenhaal all but ensured her feature-length debut wouldn’t crash-or-burn on the strength (or lack thereof) of the cast. Attuned to the nuances of performing in front of the camera, Gyllenhaal elicits awards-worthy performances from not just Colman (a given), but a career-best Dakota Johnson and star-in-the-making Jessie Buckley, making The Lost Daughter an engaging, enthralling experience whenever they’re on the screen.

The Lost Daughter opens in U.S. movie theaters today (Friday, December 17) and will begin streaming on Netflix worldwide later this month (Friday, December 31).

The Lost Daughter

  • Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Elena Ferrante
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Olivia Colman
  • Dakota Johnson
  • Peter Sarsgaard
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Dagmara DomińczykDakota JohnsonElena FerranteJessie BuckleyMaggie GyllenhaalOliver Jackson-CohenOlivia ColmanPeter SarsgaardThe Lost DaughterDrama

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