Based on the novel by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter is the directorial debut of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. Olivia Colman stars as Leda, a middle-aged professor who is vacationing in Greece over the summer. As soon as she arrives, her obsession with Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter causes Leda to reminisce about her experience with motherhood.
When we first meet Leda, she is content with the quietness and solitude. However, this is quickly disrupted by the arrival of a large raucous family from Queens, who have travelled to the area for a birthday. Despite some initial tension, Leda is quietly fascinated with Nina’s relationship with her daughter. As the film goes on, we learn that Leda is a mother herself, but her early years as a mother were not only incredibly challenging and evokes a deep sense of regret.
The Lost Daughter explores the challenges of motherhood from three different perspectives: Leda – a middle-aged woman with two grown-up children; Elena – an attractive woman with a toddler; and Leda – a working mother of two children. They each have their own challenges with learning how to be a mother but their struggles lead to the question of whether a woman has the maternal instinct or they grow into the role.
Flashbacks into Leda’s younger years (played by Jessie Buckley) highlight how being a mother of two young girls has affected her relationship with their father Joe (Jack Farthing) and fed her resentment towards her children. Despite her best efforts, Leda spends more time disciplining them or pushing them away to focus on her career and subsequently didn’t feel any fulfilment at home. Her enthusiasm and commitment to her work, not to mention her self-happiness away from her children, highlight her selfishness as a character and questions her maternal instinct – or the notable lack of it.
Though initially happy on her own, the sight of Nina and her daughter stirs a deep desire with Leda to reflect on life with her daughters. This somewhat wills her to steal a precious item that unwittingly distresses Nina and her family, causing the young woman to doubt her future and abilities as a mother. Through Nina’s struggles, Leda sees herself in her younger counterpart but despite attempting to be a role model of sorts, Leda doesn’t do enough to excuse her selfish nature – making her an inexplicably unrepentant character. This also results in the film primarily focusing on Colman’s fraught performance, which frustratingly prevents the wonderful Johnson and Buckley from expanding their similarly pivotal roles.
With her debut as director, Gyllenhaal incorporates an overly artistic approach to her direction that heightens its psychological tone. Beautiful and visually affecting, this creates an unsettling but unnecessary sense of paranoia that takes away the sentimentality behind Leda’s emotional journey. In addition, the heartbreaking dialogue in Gyllenhaal’s adapted screenplay isn’t helped by the close-up shots that border on pretentious and the drawn-out narrative that prolongs the suffering of its key characters.
Overall, The Lost Daughter is an ambitious directorial debut from Gyllenhaal. Colman shines as Leda but its overlong runtime and uneven supporting performances cause its dramatic effect to falter for the sake of style.
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Stars: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris
Runtime: 121 minutes
Country: USA, Greece