Uncomfortable and complex, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter paints a weary picture of the concept of motherhood but is held together by a mesmerizing performance from Olivia Colman.
Colman stars as Leda Caruso, a middle-aged college professor on vacation in Greece. On the beach, Leda notices Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother struggling with her three-year-old daughter Elena. When Elena goes missing, Leda finds her and returns Elena to Nina. All the while, Elena is inconsolable due to the loss of her beloved doll. Leda also interacts with the hotel’s caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) and young resort assistant Will (Paul Mescal).
While viewing Nina, Leda recalls her own struggles with motherhood. In flashbacks, young Leda (Jessie Buckley) frequently loses her patience with her two young daughters and becomes withdrawn. Reconciling with the darkness of her past, Leda sees Nina as a kindred spirit whom she can help.
Plot-wise, there is not a lot of meat. Leda lounges around without much direction while on vacation, but her interactions with Nina are an excuse to remember her own struggles with motherhood. Young Leda feels trapped and unhelped by her husband, while her daughters do not do anything particularly wrong. Leda wants it all to come naturally and it never does.
As a character, Leda is all about impulse. There is little weighing the options when she makes a rash decision about her children or around complete strangers. This lack of control dictates her entire worldview. She comments that she is a selfish person, which the narrative bores out. Meanwhile, Nina seems controlled by the people around her without any agency of her own. Her feeling trapped is due to the family she married into, but it is all viewed through Leda’s lens.
As a parent myself, I had a hard time reconciling Leda and Nina’s feelings towards parenting. Though I cannot put myself in the shoes of a mother, I can put myself in the shoes of a parent to little children. There are always those creeping thoughts and desires in the back of your head when you have children, but as long as those desires stay silent, nothing bad comes from it. In Leda’s case, she is not silent and lives out those desires regardless of the damage it causes. It is a feeling of simultaneous jealousy and abhorrence. It is a feeling I also had a hard time reconciling, which I appreciated the film for bringing to the surface.
Colman is masterful. She does some of her best work with her eyes. While she can put on this facade of gentle kindness, she shields the world from her inherent darkness and potential for cruelty. She is not outwardly impolite at the outset, but she delivers an inappropriate line at the right time, not to purposefully harm, but because it is not in her nature to be a particularly kind person. Her unassuming nature just adds to the pain when delivering these barbs.
Buckley compliments Colman well. While not directly impersonating Colman (or the other way around), the two women embody the same headspace. Buckley portrays these feelings of her youth being wasted, while Colman feels more comfortable in the fact that her wasted youth is already gone. Buckley has feverish energy that she isn’t allowed to unleash but is desperate to do so. Her character’s actions are personally abominable, but her performance is impressive enough to overwhelm those actions.
Johnson is a bit of a mystery, but her lack of development is an intentional choice. Leda’s projecting of her own feelings onto Nina is vital for the film to work. Johnson doesn’t let too much information out and it allows for Leda and the audience’s expectations to be put on Nina ahead of time. In reality, we know very little about her as a character. Dagmara Moniczyk has a fun role as Nina’s judgey sister-in-law, while Harris and Mescal are more plot devices than characters. Jack Farthing and Peter Sarsgaard add small but memorable supporting roles.
Gyllenhaal, in her directorial debut, pulls off the true trick of making these characters sympathetic despite their actions. The camera crowd Colman and Buckley, adding to their suffocation, while Johnson is viewed almost exclusively from Colman’s perspective. For someone who has never directed before, Gyllenhaal has significant talent.
The Lost Daughter will definitely rub some viewers the wrong way. But, Gyllenhaal and Colman are willing to push past the boundaries of comfort to present a captivating portrait of people’s darkest intentions.
The Lost Daughter is now available to stream on Netflix