The Lost Daughter
2021, R, 121 min. Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Starring Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 17, 2021
There's a look of slow, sinking disgust on the face of vacationing British professor Leda, the complicated protagonist of intricate character study The Lost Daughter. She's on a Greek beach, enjoying the quiet and the solitude, biting into a Cornetto, when other people dare intrude on her solitude.
As given craggy, fractured inner life by Olivia Colman in Maggie Gyllenhaal's adaptation of Elena Ferrante's 2006 novel La figlia oscura, Colman doesn't soften Leda's accent, leaning into the thickest of West Yorkshire elongated vowels. She uses that identity as a weapon, knowingly chagrined that the intruders don't know where Shipley is. She is as intrusive in her own way as the loudmouths in the local cinema.
By contrast, Jessie Buckley's Leda (shown in flashback memories) is a little softer, a little more controlled, at least in public and with strangers. Subtly putting career first as she sprints for professional acceptance, she's utterly ill-at-ease with this whole parenting thing. And it's this two-decade divide – between the rising academic in her too-small apartment with two kids that she can barely tolerate, and the 48-year-old tenured and respected professor, partially estranged from her now-grown children – that The Lost Daughter finds the woman's true nature.
The location of Ferrante's novel remains the same, but the characters are altered by geography. Leda is no longer from Naples but English; meanwhile, the brutish and loud family who begin to intrude on her splendid isolation, and into whose life she in turn intrudes, is the epitome of the ugly American. Yet she sees herself in Nina (Johnson), a mother of a child around the same age as the ones Leda left behind. Her selfish actions, culminating in the seemingly innocuous theft of a doll, become a splinter that digs quietly into her memories.
Gyllenhaal's script cuts back on the novel's depiction of multiple generations of inherited dysfunction, and instead focuses on older Leda's struggles as a middle-aged woman of seeming position and importance. The constant implicit and implied threat of masculine violence, the constant struggle to be taken seriously, the navigation of the attentions of men older (Harris as the resort's emotionally scarred handyman) and younger (Mescal as the friendly concierge/cabana boy) all shown through glances and small moments rather than confessional speeches.
Colman's performance is coiled and complicated as a woman trying to navigate her own feelings about motherhood, and engaging in dangerous, sometimes malicious projection. Is she trying to teach Nina a lesson based on her own harsh experiences, or is she indulging in hypocritical sanctimony? Maybe a little of both, but in a year when there's been great discussion about unlikable protagonists, Colman's creation of Leda as a living, breathing, deeply flawed character who can be both wounded and cruel – and the way Gyllenhaal sympathetically frames this unflattering portrait – is a fascinating reminder that not every film needs to leave us feeling comfortable.