The Lost Daughter

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Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter.
Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter.
Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix


The Lost Daughter


Now showing in cinemas


5/5 Stars 


Leda (Olivia Coleman) is a middle-aged English teacher who embarks on a quiet beach holiday in Greece in the hope of getting some time to herself and catching up on some work. Her peace is shattered, however, when a large, rowdy and disrespectful family arrives to seemingly plant themselves wherever she goes. Her attention, though, is soon drawn to one member of the family, in particular: a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) whose struggles with her toddler daughter remind Leda of her own troubled past as a mother to two young daughters of her own. 


Maggie Gyllenhaal has long proven herself to be one of the most interesting actors of her generation and if her feature film directorial and writing debut is any indication, she looks set to be an even more interesting filmmaker. The Lost Daughter is based on the novel of the same name by reclusive but acclaimed Italian author, Elena Ferrante, and however mysterious Ferrante herself is ("Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym and though she corresponded a lot with Gyllenhaal throughout the film making process, it was only ever through email) the same is certainly true of the film itself.

In broad terms, it is a film about womanhood, motherhood and all the societal and personal pressures and expectations that come with it, all built around the most threadbare of plots. But that hardly does it justice. It is no mere intellectual polemic on feminism and it's certainly not interested in surface-level, unambiguous storytelling or in anything as straightforward as female victimhood. The only thing clear about the film is that it is about the vastly complex, multi-layered, often highly conflicted reality of being a woman and a mother in the modern world.

Now as someone who is not a woman or mother and, to the best of my knowledge, has never been a woman or a mother, I might seem an odd choice to review such a film. And yet, this is clearly a "woman's picture" that is not aimed at only women, even if it clearly expects men and women (and everyone in between) to experience the film quite differently from one another. As a fairly run-of-the-mill bloke watching and now reviewing this, I can only say that if this is indeed an accurate representation of what it feels to be a woman and/or mother, I am very, deeply, truly sorry to all women and mothers everywhere.

Not because the film is so lazy as to fall for anything as distasteful and distrustful as cheap misandry or, worse, pathetic female disempowerment - this is a film by women and about women, but the male characters (played by top talent like Ed Harris, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Paul Mescal, and Mr Maggie Gyllenhaal himself, Peter Sarsgaard) are largely no less complex and, with one or two exceptions, no more or less villainous than their female counterparts - but because the whole film felt like an extended panic attack.

More specifically, it's an extraordinarily agitating viewing experience - but in the more precise and literal sense of the word rather than as just another synonym for "annoying" and actually not as any sort of qualitative judgement. Despite being, in effect, a quiet character-driven drama, The Lost Daughter evoked a visceral response in me that puts most horror and thriller films to shame. In part, it is certainly because as someone who is a socially anxious introvert, everything about Olivia Coleman's brittle, tightly-wound Leda and her experiences on her holiday set off all those circuits in my brain and didn't let up for two hours straight. But that's only part of it.

Perhaps a larger part of why the film feels like an itch below your skin that's just out of reach is because so much of what's happening in the film lies below the surface, just out of reach. It's not surreal exactly - though there are some surreal moments, especially involving a doll that may or may not be the "daughter" of the film's ambiguous title - but it feels surreal. Like, what's going on on-screen seems simple enough but that there's something else entirely going on just out of sight. And I'm not even one-hundred percent sure there even is!

It's all very unnerving but perhaps the most uncanny aspect of the film are the flashbacks to a younger Leda when she was still married and raising two young daughters. By every right this should be simplicity itself, even blandly obvious, but there is something very off about it all. Not just because the climax of this section is quietly emotionally devastating despite being revealed almost casually by older Leda in another calm-but-fraught conversation with Dakota Jackson's beautiful, mercurial Nina, but because young Leda, as played by Wild Rose's Jessie Buckley, seems to be an entirely different character to older Leda. 

On a surface level, they clearly are the same character, with biographical details lining up, and even the total change in personality from Leda being fundamentally angry to fundamentally sad are logically explainable. Olivia Coleman and Jessie Buckley, however, play Leda as two completely different characters and they feel that way throughout. 

Not because Coleman or Buckley are bad at capturing the essence of the other actress - they're both spectacularly good actors, let's not forget - but because there seems to be a concerted effort not to have them do so. Indeed, both actresses actually went out of their way not to watch the other's performance, and do indeed have almost no mannerisms in common. Even their accents are subtly different (perhaps not so subtly if you're a Brit) and, as you may have noticed Jesse Buckley and Olivia Coleman don't exactly look identical. 

The result is an unnerving disconnect between what the film is telling us and what we're seeing and hearing in these two performances to the point that it wouldn't seem out of place at all if there was some big plot twist at the end of the film revealing that young Leda is an invention of a lonely English teacher. But this isn't that type of film and no such declaration ever arrives. Instead, because it just feels that way, it becomes something more profound; something that exists in the nebulous space between reality and metaphor.      

I could go on and on about the similarly layered storytelling in some of the film's many other disconcerting moments - entire scholarly essays can no doubt be written just about a certain scene in a cinema, about who the "Lost Daughter" actually is, or even and perhaps especially about that bloody doll - but suffice it to say that this is a challenging, complex work that will stay in your mind long after seeing it.

It's also, despite not being a particularly easy watch and one that I'm not sure I'll go back to even though I probably should, pretty much a stone cold masterpiece that is as brilliantly written as it is performed as it is directed - and one that is sure to have many a veteran writer/director looking on in envy at what Ms Gyllenhaal has managed to do with her very first film. I know I would.


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