Netflix UK film review: The Lost Daughter
James R | On 31, Dec 2021
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Cast: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Dagmara Domińczyk
“Children are a crushing responsibility. Happy birthday.” Those words from Leda (Olivia Colman) still come as a shock long after watching The Lost Daughter. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel manages to capture something rare on screen: the prickliness of humanity.
The prickliest of all is Leda, a middle-aged professor who is on holiday on a Greek island. Sunbathing and with her work and books in tow, her peaceful time is disrupted by the arrival of another family: young mother Nina (a darkly unhappy Dakota Johnson), her small daughter, Elena (Athena Martin), and her husband, Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and the pregnant Callie (a commanding Dagmara Domińczyk). They ask if she would move her chair to give them more room. She bluntly refuses – a surprising departure from polite convention. Is Leda’s rudeness prompted by her own problems? Or is she simply more honest than most people would be?
The truth lies somewhere in between, and Gyllenhaal’s confident feature debut as writer and director dives into that confusion without holding back. She takes us from the present day back to Leda’s younger years as a mother herself, with Jessie Buckley delivering a heart-wrenching performance as the strained mother finding looking after a child to be a suffocating challenge. It’s a performance that’s delicately echoed by Olivia Colman, who is more hedgehog than human as Leda’s spiky ball of suppressed pain, resentment and regret.
These two richly complex portraits of motherhood each haunt the other – balancing grief for society’s idealised perception of life with kids and grief for society’s idealised perception of life without them. They unfold in tandem, as an incident on the beach triggers flashbacks for Leda that begin to explain how and why she behaves the way she does. The deliberate messiness leads to occasional frustration, as uneven pacing leaves us languishing in the turmoil, but that feels more deliberate than anything; Gyllenhaal carefully crafts an atmosphere that’s movingly intimate yet never warm, despite the sun-dappled, idyllic backdrop everything is handsomely framed against.
Colman’s still presence, always on the brink, is enough to keep you hooked, but the introspective script understands that parenthood is driven by ripples of motion and interaction, whether that’s responding to a cry, searching for a missing doll, telling someone off, asking for help, stealing a flirtatious moment with a pool lifeguard (Paul Mescal) or becoming complicit in an affair.
On the fringes of the film, Ed Harris brings old soul to the wisened expat Lyle, who runs Leda’s resort, and Peter Sarsgaard adds steamy intensity as a charismatic academic. But these are grace notes that amplify the interweaving disharmony built up by the impeccable central quartet – a meditation on age and experience, proximity and distance, love and dissatisfaction, longing and loss. The unravelling mystery is as opaque as it is revealing, with each moment of clarity a study in the piercing reality of repression.