The Lost Daughter is a challenging work from writer and director Maggie Gyllenhaal, who makes her feature debut behind the scenes. She adapts a book of the same name by Elena Ferrante (published in 2006) for the screen.
The Lost Daughter concerns Leda (played by Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in a younger iteration), an English professor of literature. She lives in the United States but is holidaying by herself on one of the Greek islands. She describes her break as a working holiday. While well-spoken and forthright, Leda generally prefers to keep to herself. She appears to be sustained by calm and solitude. That is despite the interest shown in her by a number of people, including the man looking after her lodgings, Lyle (Ed Harris).
Leda is an observer of life. As such, while sunbathing, she notices an attractive young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter. But her “bubble” is soon broken by the arrival of a rowdy bunch of loud-mouths in an extended family. The film takes off after Nina’s daughter disappears and panic sets in. Through flashbacks, we gradually learn more about Leda’s back story and how it relates to the current situation. We learn that she’s a mother to two grown girls. But there’s a lot more to Leda’s history, which explains her emotional response to what unfolds.
The Lost Daughter is cleverly conceived, written and directed. But it’s a slow-burn film that needs perseverance to get the most out of. Many will find the going tough. A feeling of unease permeates the mood, which Gyllenhaal captures perfectly. The movie is about flawed creatures and their desires. Is Leda a hero or a villain or a little of both? Perhaps she is simply human – vulnerable and regretful.
Olivia Colman excels as the protagonist, a woman of contradictions. Jessie Buckley personifies the dichotomies of a younger Leda, wrestling with the responsibilities of motherhood, career and personal identity. Dakota Johnson radiates in a smaller role as Nina.
I appreciated the subtleties that Gyllenhaal brought to her adaptation of the book, which couldn’t have been easy to translate to the screen.
The Lost Daughter is in limited cinema release now and screens on Netflix from 31 December 2021
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.