The Lost Daughter, the writing and directing debut of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a morose slog of low-key anti-maternal dramatics. The story centers on Leda Caruso (Olivia Coleman), a British-born Harvard literature professor in her late 40s who is vacationing alone on the Greek island of Spetses. Much of the film follows her often awkward, sometimes hostile, but sometimes sincere interactions with various people around her, including Lyle (Ed Harris), who oversees the building where she is staying, Will (Paul Mescal), a college student who works at the beach, and Nina (Dakota Johnson), a struggling young mother who is part of a large and loud American family staying at the same beach and whose presence ignites in Leda miserable memories of her own stint as a young mother. Those memories are interspersed throughout the film, giving us some glimpses, but not really much insight, into Leda's past, when she was an aspiring academic (played by Jessie Buckley) with a husband (Jack Farthing) and two young daughters, Bianca (Robyn Elwell) and Martha (Ellie Blake), whose absence in the present tense makes clear that their paths have diverged.
If we leave the film with any insight or understanding, it is simply that Leda was a lousy mother who loathed motherhood-like just about everything else. By the end we know that she feels contempt for loud families, small children, and people acting boorishly at the movies, but we know nothing of what she appreciates, or cherishes, or loves (except for her own contempt and sense of superiority). If she feels pleasure in anything, it appears to be depriving others of pleasure, which we see when she very plainly declines to move her beach chair so that Nina's family can all sit together on the beach. The self-conscious smugness with which she declines this very simply gesture defines her and turns Colman's admittedly fine performance into a grotesque portrait of selfishness masquerading as liberation.
"I am an unnatural mother," Leda states at one point late in the film, thus giving voice to what has been plainly clear for quite some time. There is a self-destructive quality to Leda, which we see charted in her increasingly hostile interactions with her young daughters and her extramarital affair with a haughty academic (Peter Sarsgaard). And not only is she an "unnatural" mother, but she inexplicably seeks to inflict pain into others' lives, especially in her holding hostage a beloved doll owned by Elena (Athena Martin), Nina's young daughter. Nina and Elena think the doll is lost when Leda is, in fact, secretly holding onto it for herself like some kind of morose talisman that she clutches, sleeps with, and stares at. The simple cruelty of this unnecessary action might, in a different film, provide some insight into Leda's tortured understanding of herself, but in The Lost Daughter it simply plays as one of many inexplicable actions that feel weighted with portent meaning simply because they otherwise don't make any sense.
Gyllenhaal adapted the 2006 novel of the same name by the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante, whose work since the early '90s has been widely praised. Perhaps The Lost Daughter works better on the page than the screen, or perhaps something essential got left out of the translation. Either way, the film sags and mopes, asking us to engage with a character who remains stubbornly at arm's length. Leda, for all her screen time, remains a cipher, a symbol of competing instincts complicated by our culture's contradictory demands of womanhood and mythic glorification of motherhood. That is an important subject and one ripe for exploration, but here it achieves little more than tedium because it is anchored to such an impenetrable, disagreeable character whose every action is little more than a meandering dead end.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Netflix
Overall Rating: (2)
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