By Gokul KP
In Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut The Lost Daughter, Olivia Colman delivers a haunting portrayal of Leda Caruso, a woman grappling with the complexities of motherhood and self-discovery. As past traumas intertwine with present-day struggles during her holiday on a Greek island, Leda leads the movie along themes of loneliness, guilt, and societal expectations, leaving audiences unsettled yet captivated by the raw portrayal of maternal anguish and the quest for liberation.
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter begins on a very mysterious tone as we see 48-year-old Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) arrive on a Greek island for her vacation. The opening minutes don’t reveal a lot about her — we see her mannerisms and how she reacts initially to the presence of other characters around her. As we dive deeper, we learn more about Leda (through) and her past, which could fill in a few blanks in her story.
Based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter is a painful and melancholic movie that seemingly explores the themes of loneliness, motherhood, and guilt. But that would be an oversimplification since the film also displays a lot of nuances about how the concept of motherhood can cause permanent damage to one’s psyche.
Leda, a divorcée and a professor of comparative literature, finds her working holiday interrupted by a loud, flashy, and lively family from Queens. During her interactions with these new guests, we see the supposedly calm and polite Leda become unsettled, and her reactions become awkward and impulsive. When the daughter of Nina (Dakota Johnson), one of the family members, goes missing temporarily, Leda gets pulled back into the past. She revisits the memories of her search for her daughter Bianca at a beach when Leda was in her twenties.
What we see later are a series of these flashbacks – wonderfully orchestrated by a solid performance from Jessie Buckley as the young Leda – and the present-day scenes that run in parallel, which justifies some of the odd choices she makes throughout the film. We get a lot of disjointed answers for the questions the movie throws at the audience in the beginning, but ultimately, even Leda doesn’t fully know how to deal with the revelations she encounters.
A curious Nina befriends Leda later in the movie, initiated by the former’s glances at the elderly woman while at the beach. Their interactions are very strange – Nina seems a bit too interested in Leda, and her eyes betray that weird fascination. The resemblance between the two is too obvious. Both are/were young mothers who struggle with the burden of parenting. They pine to be free, and there’s the element of infidelity too. During the brief exchanges between them, Nina discovers a comforting ally in Leda. The understanding between the two thus improves throughout the movie, owing to these similarities.
There’s also an unlikely theft that lingers in the background throughout, which inevitably influences Leda’s behavior, and as a result, the American family’s attitude towards her. Her conduct becomes sloppy and distressed as she strives to put up a veneer of lies, but she fails miserably in hiding what’s underneath.
In the end, we are not treated to a climax which is usually a distinct act of abuse or trauma – something that the audience would associate with such stories and would explain the actions and feelings of the character we see in front of us. It’s a period in the past where Leda was absent for three years, abandoning her children and her role as a mother.
Motherhood had carried out a series of onslaughts on her health, ambitions, desires, and career. The lack of any outlet for her anger and frustration, including an unhelpful spouse, made her sick and exhausted. The attention and recognition she received from a colleague (played by a charming Peter Sarsgaard, who is also Gyllenhaal's spouse) during an academic event served as the final push, and she disappeared to live a life of liberation.
"CHILDREN ARE A CRUSHING RESPONSIBILITY."
The Lost Daughter talks about one of the most prevalent yet unspoken taboos today - how women should naturally be good at taking care of their kids, and mothers should always be selfless and sacrifice anything if needed for the sake of their families. Maggie Gyllenhaal has succeeded immensely in extracting a great performance from Olivia Colman, who is the backbone of the film. The plot unveils many undesirable emotions, but the objective is never to fully confront and redeem them; there is no safety in sight. The details of the past trauma ooze out in vivid detail as we progress through the story, but you see no rush from either the characters or the filmmakers to put everything on display.
Cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s lens fully captures the anxieties Leda is experiencing. The camera shots during the first half of the movie are much closer to Leda, and we don’t have a choice but to share the suffocation she feels. Towards the latter half, the frames slowly recede and become less claustrophobic. The use of tense dialogue also helps convey the vulnerability and unsettling sensation that permeates the screen.
“ATTENTION IS THE RAREST AND PUREST FORM OF GENEROSITY.” - Simone Weil
There’s a lot of discomfort that we would have to sit with while we watch how Leda has trouble balancing her career and family, while also coping with parenting responsibilities. Leda and her partner clearly weren’t good parents. But do we have any valid reasons to malign and condemn her? Is she a bad person for prioritizing herself over her family or children? Is it her fault that she isn’t a ‘natural mother’ and motherly instincts don’t come to her no matter how hard she tries? If anything, the movie shows us how Leda suffers precisely because she cares too much. Colman has perfectly embodied the role of a mother who has no visible regret about having children but also tries to control a cocktail of emotions including pain, sadness, love, and pride.
But does anyone get that well-deserved release after all the tension? There is no resolution, and the reminders of all the things Leda is trying to flee from are still around her when the movie ends.
It would be interesting to know how Leda's daughters would describe how their childhood was affected by their parents and the abandonment that their mother put them through. But Leda won’t be surprised; she already knows what she inflicted on her children. And that is exactly what she is trying to live with.
The Lost Daughter is currently streaming on Netflix.
About the Writer:
Gokul KP is a Queer writer and aspiring journalist from Kerala, India. He holds an engineering degree and works as a Business Manager in Bangalore, India. His work, which spans fiction and non-fiction, has appeared on multiple websites and online publications and has covered topics related to mental health, politics, mainstream media, pop culture, and gender & sexuality.
He also tries to use the platforms available to him, including his Instagram account (@kpgokul), to spread awareness about climate change, LGBTQIA+ rights, feminism, etc. He is an ardent 'horror' fan and considers Stephen King a source of inspiration.