The Lost Daughter in select theaters Dec. 17th, 2021, and exclusively on Netflix Dec. 30, 2021.
Author Elena Ferrante has amassed global plaudits for crafting stories that unabashedly tell stories of the female experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In adapting Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal has carried that authenticity into the cinematic realm and expanded upon its themes with mesmerizing veracity and assuredness. Together with actresses Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley — who both embody the character of Leda Caruso in two different eras of her life — they craft a portrait of a woman rarely portrayed and seen quite like this on screen.
Following much of the narrative spine of Ferrante’s novel, Gyllenhaal’s script also retains the book’s structure of revealing portions of the life of academic Leda Caruso, in her current middle age (Colman) and with flashbacks to her past (Buckley) when she was raising two young, strong-willed daughters and pursuing her research. Leda opens the film alone on summer holiday on an unnamed Greek island that’s not particularly gorgeous or overstuffed with tourists. She clearly relishes the quiet, not keeping to a schedule or confined by even the closed windows of her rented villa. It’s a glimpse of what keeps her content, which is quickly shattered by the very large, Queens-based multigenerational family that invades the resort beach and Leda’s peace with their loud music, voices, boats, and general selves. They also bring a lot of drama, which Leda quietly enjoys observing from her centrally located beach chair in the midst of them. In particular, she’s captivated by the mother/daughter dynamic of Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her young, demanding daughter, Elena (Athena Martin Anderson). When Elena goes missing one afternoon on the beach, Leda gets involved in the search and finally speaks to the family swirling around her, which inexorably ties them together in combustible ways.
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That inciting incident kicks off a journey within for Leda, as she remembers her younger self struggling with her own two girls, especially headstrong Bianca (Robyn Elwell), who also went missing during a beach trip. As she contends with Nina’s family, more flashbacks intrude about Bianca, who demanded her attention despite overall fatigue, lack of parenting support from her working husband, and the tunnel vision she slipped into regarding her scholarly research. It’s clear in the then and now, Leda has a complicated relationship with what society deems “proper” maternal feelings, even candidly expressing to Nina that, “Children are a crushing obligation.”
Colman and Buckley both fashion Leda into a fascinating grab bag of mercurial impulses. But Colman is also pushed to personify the prickly and inscrutable nature of Leda in the present, which swings wildly from closed and biting to friendly and charming, and even sympathetic and at times empathetic. Her Leda exists as a swirling cloud of incongruous emotions and ambitions that she only unleashes in tiny bursts; a woman who has learned the hard way how unacceptable they are to societal norms.
It’s in flashbacks of the past that we can sketch together how the Leda of today came to be through the gradual closing down of Leda then, the version who acted upon her most hedonistic, selfish and non-maternal choices. What’s even more masterful is that Gyllenhaal doesn’t say anything definitive about Leda’s choices, she just points her intimately framed camera at her and captures the complexity of what happens. It’s refreshing in its non-judgment, challenging us to just exist in Leda’s shoes by how intimately she captures Buckley’s body or face within her unflinching frames. From that, we can ponder if Leda would have connected more with her girls if she had more support at home, or was allowed to pursue her intellectual passions without the heavy layer of guilt her husband lays on her for conference trips or colleague calls. But Gyllenhaal doesn’t lose focus by caring about those “what ifs”; she’s lightning focused in relaying how Leda dealt with the hand given to her and how she responds in messy and complicated ways. It’s fascinating to absorb, and then to also register again and again how quick the impulse to judge flares its ugly head as we watch what unfolds through our personal conditioning.
It’s really thrilling to watch Gyllenhaal, right out of the creative gate, so assuredly tell a story that reveals the complex interior workings of women, warts and all, and then not demonize the unattractive truths that are dredged up. There’s no greater punishment for young Leda’s choices and sins than the repercussions older Leda is still paying for now. And we see that internal burden playing out on Colman’s face in such a finely tuned performance that’s brimming with heartbreak, seething anger, and vulnerability. Gyllenhaal and her brilliant cinematographer, Helene Louvart capture it all, and let scenes breathe as needed so we feel the depth of what Leda is living with every day. There’s also Dickon Hinchliffe’s gorgeous, jazzy, melodic score that is sultry, soaring, and playful. It represents the freest parts of Leda, her unfettered, inner self coming out to play.
There’s no part of The Lost Daughter that comes up short. Even in the last act, where Gyllenhaal departs from the source text the most, she does so to give us an extra opportunity to ponder Leda’s journey in a unique way. There are no definitives in life, and that’s especially the case with Leda’s, and the film honors her story by closing it in a thoughtful, enigmatic, and clever way befitting how complex she is.