- Movie Rating -

The Lost Daughter (2021)

| December 19, 2021

I tend to be a person who proudly announces that I like to be challenged.  I like a film that challenges me to consider exactly how I feel about it.  Oddly enough, I had to see Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of The Lost Daughter twice before I realized that my issues with the film were a challenge to my sensibilities.  As odd (or possibly confusing) as that may sound, let me just say that I did not like the film on the first go-around.  I don’t normally give a film like this a second chance but I’m glad that I did.  Gyllenhaal, in her directorial debut, could have chosen a self-indulgent genre piece, an easy-to-swallow fixture that would bear her name, but she does the work.  This is a very good movie.

What comes to me now after the second viewing is what an intense and fully engaging character has been presented through the performance of Olivia Colman.  I think I’ve seen every variation of motherhood presented on the screen whether they be cold, generous, selfish, distant, loving, obsessive or only halfway decent; the crazy thing is that Colman’s Leda is effectively a combination of all of the above.  She’s a woman whose dimensions don’t fit comfortably in one small category.  She is a lot of things, sometimes she’s a good soul, sometimes she can be a bit repellant.  I know people like her and the combination of emotions and different personalities are far more complex than I am use to even from the best screenwriter.

The story, based on the 2006 novel by Elena Ferrante, is one of those onion stories in which we meet a character that we think we know right away and then the layers of that onion begin to peel away.  The special quality of Leda is that each layer seems to reveal a different person, a different mood, a different agenda.  You know, a real person.

The story has a very simple surface.  Leda is a professor of comparative literature on a working holiday on a Greek Island who settles into her rental apartment with hopes of some peace and quiet.  Settling into her beach chair with her notebook and her ice cream, we get the vibe that she is a solitary person, someone who prefers her quiet time without interruption.

That notion is dashed with the arrival of a loud, obnoxious family of tourists from Queens who seem to disregard the idea of personal space or perhaps that others would like a little peace and quiet.  They ask Leda to move down the beach so they can have more space which she coldly but politely refuses.  Amid their cacophonous group, Leda locks onto a beautiful young mother named Nina (played by an unrecognizable Dakota Johnson) whose husband only comes by on weekends.  Something about Nina’s relationship with her young daughter – who seems rather exhausting – intrigues Leda.  When the child goes missing, Leda is the hero who returns her.  Later the girl loses her favorite doll and both mother and child are frantic for several days.

It is not hard to suspect that something in Nina is triggering something from Leda’s past, and that’s where the movie begins to reveal itself.  What starts as a casual observation about a specific person becomes a layering story about a woman whose own relationship with her two daughters comes to the forefront.  Much of the latter half of the movie is comprised of flashbacks as we see the younger Leda (played by Jessie Buckley, whom Colman suggested) as a harried mother trying to balance work and family.  It is hard to speak further on this plot without giving too much away, but what Gyllenhaal creates is a fascinating balance between what has been and what is now.  Colman and Buckley don’t look anything alike (a struggle that I had to work through) but the narrative vibe of the character is so strong that I eventually was able to accept it.  In fact, the one flaw that I can point out is that perhaps the flashbacks go on a little too long.  Maybe a little less might have created a little more mystery.

Yet, what is revealed is so interesting: that even when someone enters into parenthood that doesn’t mean that they immediately become a saint and stop being the person that they were before they had children.  Nor does it mean that the complexities of one’s personality suddenly ironed out by the presence of the child.  I was also interested in the portrayal of the children both past and present and it made me realize that so many children on television or in movie are seen as cyphers for sainthood, as angelic little beings who offer purity and meaning.  Not here, Gyllenhaal sees children as demanding and difficult and, again, exhausting.  That’s a new approach.  The movie has a very interesting view of motherhood, not as a blissful Silent Night but as a job that takes patience and work.  It’s a beautiful construct and through Colman’s interior performance it works beautifully, revealing a person who knows all-too-well that perhaps motherhood isn’t for everyone.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2021) View IMDB Filed in: Drama