Caragh Medlicott reviews The Lost Daughter, the directorial debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal released just in time for awards season.
Leda Caruso is going on holiday. The windows of her rental are rolled down, her starlet sunglasses are on, and the warming caress of the sun reaches in from outside. Had a flashing prologue not teased an image of her maimed and crumpled at the sea edge, we might actually trust these scenes of holiday idyll. Adapted from the short Elena Ferrante novel of the same name, The Lost Daughter is the directorial debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal. With Olivia Colman taking up the starring role of middle-aged vacationing professor, Leda – and big supporting parts for Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley and Paul Mescal – the film holds the promise of not just an all-star cast, but an in-vogue one, too.
Settled into her “working holiday” on a fictional Greek island, the camera has a tendency to linger on everything Leda rests her eyes on. We see the patent glisten of a complimentary bowl of fruit, the aching blue of a cloudless sky – beds with crisp linen sheets, sunbeds stacked with sandy paperbacks and notebooks. It seems, early on, that Gyllenhaal is staking her territory. If the Ferrante novel compels its reader through a richly textured excess, Gyllenhaal has worked to diffuse that intimate first-person narrative into a masterclass in atmospheric gazing. A preoccupation which comes to the fore when Leda’s peaceful beach-side work is interrupted by the arrival of a boisterous family from Queens. Amongst the clan of extended relatives commandeering the beach for their own leisure, Leda spies – and begins watching – Nina (Dakota Johnson), a beautiful young mother playing with her daughter in the sea. Even after an altercation with Callie, the family’s matriarch, Leda’s interest in Nina seems tender and wistful; Nina’s maternal bonding with her daughter recalls Leda’s own youthful motherhood. When Nina loses her child along the beachfront, we see a shaky memory of a young Leda (Jessie Buckley) undergoing the same panic many years earlier – younger daughter in tow, a melting ice cream clutched in her spare hand – she desperately screams for her other daughter to come back. Ostensibly it is the empathy of this shared experience which spurs Leda to help find and deliver Nina’s daughter back to her. It is only when we see the doll she has opportunistically stolen in the process that an insidious undertone bubbles to the surface.
The Lost Daughter’s plot is divided between these two stories of motherhood. Leda’s watching of Nina and her daughter becomes intertwined with her own memories of raising two girls as a young scholar, her husband unwilling to fairly split the domestic duties. While there seems a certain incongruence between Colman’s take on the middle-aged Leda and Buckley’s adaption of the younger version, both play the part with a sharp emotional potency; Colman showing masterful command of a simmering anger disguised as brusqueness, while Buckley embroiders the subtleties of a young mother’s distress with details rendered in intense facial close ups. That it is, at times, hard to thread the two together as a continuation of a single character only heightens an ongoing sense of dream-like surreality. And The Lost Daughter is often surreal. As the family searches for the missing doll over subsequent days, papering trees and walls with creepy missing posters – Nina’s daughter increasingly inconsolable in its absence – we see Leda recall a romantic and intellectual affair she once had with a respected academic. As these fragmental flashbacks wear on, it becomes clear that this infidelity was pivotal in both Leda’s rediscovery of a sense of self, and a distancing from her daughters (concurrent threads which are not coincidental). As the present day Leda observes Nina’s increasing impatience with her own daughter, and later stumbles upon her in a heated embrace with Will (Paul Mescal) – a young business student working the summer season – it becomes clear that it is a mutual maternal suffering, rather than affection, which bonds the two.
Much like the novel, Gyllenhaal packs her film with symbolism and portent – the visual medium intensifying the recurrence of these visceral images (a strip of orange peel twisted into a snake, the horror-style shot of a worm writhing out of a doll’s mouth). For all its sweeping horizons and paradise backdrops, the spaces of The Lost Daughter seem either claustrophobically small or isolating in their silence. The beach is a cramped half-circle – the bar where Leda eats is dim and deserted. Storms follow sunshine. Bugs creep in overnight. Under the veneer of freshness, Leda finds the fruit in her apartment rotten and furred with moss. Every ambient moment, just like Leda’s every good mood, is ultimately stifled by a creeping shadow of darkness. Propelled by Ferrante’s vision of the unnatural mother, Gyllenhaal uses the haze and temperature of a dream to tease out the ideas which neither mother can quite admit to themselves – that of not just shattered identity, but also inevitability. The daughter eternally dissatisfied; the mother seething and resentful. In one of the few one-on-one interactions shared by the two mothers, Leda admits to having abandoned her daughters for a number of years in their childhood, something which fascinates – rather than disturbs – Nina. Instead, it is Leda’s decision to return which perplexes her (Johnson is brilliant here – cold and searing), as both seem to lament the insistence of the maternal urge.
At the heart of The Lost Daughter is Leda’s theft of the doll. It is the propellant force of the film’s final act, but also runs throughout as a psychological themotre to Leda’s tumultuous and silent inner workings. In her ongoing pruning and rejection of the doll – cleaning it, dressing it, hiding it – Leda conveys the plethora of incomprehensible emotions which make up her own knowledge of mothering; at once attempting to rectify, control, project and ultimately self-heal the still painful scars of her past. As a directorial debut, The Lost Daughter is stylish and self-assured. Gyllenhaal may not have waded as deep as she might into the depths of her own storytelling – this is a faithful adaptation of Ferrante made in obvious reverence to the author – but still she has confronted an area largely uncharted in cinema to date: female-led stories of motherhood. Leda states, early on, that children are a “crushing responsibility” – and The Lost Daughter documents, without hesitancy or moral imposition, all the ways that crushing might leave one shattered and permnanetly altered.
The Lost Daughter is available to stream now on Netflix.
Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review Senior Editor.