We are used to seeing in movies the figure of a devoted, tender, and loving mother who will overcome all obstacles in life to protect and make her children happy. But that is not the case of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante and adapted by Gyllenhaal herself. In The Lost Daughter, the audience is taken on a raw emotional journey through the memories of its protagonist, an atypical mother who did not successfully fulfill her social role. After all, what is being a mother but fulfilling the expectations for a role created by social institutions?
The Lost Daughter is the story of Leda (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged woman, professor of comparative literature and mother of two adult daughters, who spends a vacation on the beach, but is soon haunted by the presence of a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson), whose suffocating relationship with her little daughter (and her raucous and menacing extended family), reminds Leda of her early motherhood years. The film goes back and forth between the current events on the beach and the memories of Leda, played in her youth by Jessie Buckley.
Gyllenhaal takes her time to carefully construct the setting for the story. She knew perfectly how to give life and personality to that coastal space and synchronize it with the emotions of the characters, especially of Leda. There is no doubt that this is a story of women told by a woman. The way both the script and the camera approach their female characters is sensual and rebellious, unafraid to show their imperfections, while at the same time revealing their fears, anxieties, and desires for freedom with rare nuanced.
There are distant glances between Leda and Nina at the beginning that reveal an emotional mystery, as if they were reflected in each other. But it is the disappearance of Nina’s daughter, who is eventually found by Leda, that fosters the first rapprochement between the two mothers. Johnson, whom unfortunately the script doesn’t give the opportunity to do much more than struggle with her daughter’s whimsical child behavior, is penetrative with her looks and gestures, giving an intriguing performance, pairing so well with Colman’s multilayered work.
Past episodes with young Leda desperately dealing with her two little daughters aren’t always that interesting and soon become repetitive, but they explain the protagonist’s conflict and are bolstered with Buckley’s performance. This a young mother, stuck in a relationship with a not so supportive husband and father, wasting her talents while consumed by domestic life. Eventually the plot reaches the point of revealing the great secret that haunts Leda in the present: she left. Without spelled out in lengthy detail, the image of an abandoning mother is so poignant and vivid in the film. Even more so when Leda confesses (although with guilt) that those days that she lived away from her daughters were simply amazing.
Even if we do not know how is, after all those years, the relationship between Leda and her daughters, what is compelling here is the deconstruction of motherhood according to social norms. It is not like a fairytale. A mother can be totally sucked by her children to the point of just wanting to run away. Yet the patriarchal society insists on the idea that all a woman needs to feel fulfilled is not only to have children, but also to be with her children all the time. That is why at the beginning, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), Nina’s pregnant sister-in-law, tells Leda that her anxiety is probably due to being away from her daughters. “Children are a crushing responsibility”, Leda responds.
The film gets tedious in the second half. The drama eventually works better when it occurs in Leda’s head than in her surroundings and interactions with supporting characters, whom Gyllenhaal treats with such restraint that it is nearly impossible to read their intentions, as well as appreciate their voices in the story.
Fortunately, there is not a false note in any of the performances, and even if, by the end, there are several unresolved subplots, the central conflict remains compelling and absorbing. The Lost Daughter it is a journey to the darker yet human sides of motherhood.
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