A meditation on the tension between motherhood and personal identity, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut The Lost Daughter — adapted from Elena Ferrante’s same-named novel — is frank in its admission that, for all of its rewards, parenting can be a pretty rough gig. No one knows that more than Leda (Olivia Colman, in a stellar performance), whose life choices come back to haunt her during what’s intended to be a relaxing Greek vacation.
Leda arrives in a small seaside town ready to unwind and enjoy the peaceful beach near her rented apartment. But then a loud, boisterous family — which includes both young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and mother-to-be Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk) — shows up, shattering Leda’s quiet calm. As she interacts with them, she remembers when her own daughters were small (Jessie Buckley plays Leda in the flashbacks), their never-ending demands on her time and attention leading to resentment and eventually trouble in her marriage to Joe (Jack Farthing).
As Leda’s past unspools, her present is complicated by an impulsive decision, her connection to a young waiter named Will (Paul Mescal), and the persistent presence of Lyle (Ed Harris), the man who rented her the apartment she’s staying in. By the time she’s ready to confront the truth of her decisions from years ago, she’s embroiled in the kind of drama she hasn’t experienced in decades. Is it exciting? Upsetting? Perhaps a bit of both; certainly, it makes her think about who she is and how she’s lived her life.
Both Colman and Buckley are excellent as Leda, with the latter beautifully demonstrating the simultaneous agony and glory of having small people constantly demanding your time and attention, when sometimes all you want to do is talk like a grown-up, hide, or just not be touched by anyone for awhile. And Gyllenhaal proves an assured first-time director, weaving the two timelines together in ways that keeps the story engaging but not confusing. Thoughtful and honest, The Lost Daughter is an excellent addition to the canon of movies about motherhood. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Sherin Nicole Watching The Lost Daughter is like reading a book for which your mind envisions the situations and emotions with tangible clarity. You lean forward when the scenes change with the same expectation as turning the pages. Two mothers at opposite ends of their children’s lives, Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson, struggle against the decay of the first’s memories and the misgivings poised to break the second. The juxtaposition is uneasy. Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her directorial debut, and leading actress Colman tell a story layered with a thousand daily tragedies, the menace of the mundane, and the pitfalls of the past.
Loren King Fans of Elena Ferrante’s piercing 2008 novel, published before her bestselling Neapolitan quartet, won’t be disappointed by director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s alternately sumptuous and sharp edged screen version of The Lost Daughter. Gyllenhaal, who adapted Ferrante’s novel, has creating a mesmerizing film that captures the complex psychology of central character Leda Caruso, an academic played to shattering perfection by Olivia Colman, and the sensual atmosphere that slowly reveals Leda’s increasingly fragile state as she drifts between the present and memories of the past. Even though Gyllenhaal has shifted the action from Italy to the Greek coast, she conveys the dark and light, the bold and delicate, of Ferrante’s story. Leda’s vacation is a day at the beach that quickly turns into a conduit for searing recollections and harsh regrets about raising her two daughters. Jessie Buckley as the younger Leda matches Colman’s self-possession, discipline and energy in depicting a mother who often must make the wrenching choice of career over children with the emotional scars to show for it. Images and themes — mothers and daughters and dolls, in particular— that recur in Ferrante’s later work are all here, deftly reimagined for the screen by Gyllenhaal, cinematographer Helene Louvart and the sublime cast.
Pam Grady: Maggie Gyllenhaal makes an indelible writing/directing debut with this graceful, resonant adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel. In her acting career, films like Secretary, Sherrybaby, and Hysteria, and series like The Deuce, have marked her as an artist deeply devoted to character and now she follows that lodestar as a filmmaker. Olivia Colman is Leda, a professor on a beach vacation, discombobulated by a large, boisterous (and mostly vulgar) family that invades the serenity of the shore. When she recognizes something in Nina (Dakota Johnson), mother of a small daughter and the quietest member of the clan, her growing obsession leads to a small rash act with outsized consequences and a reckoning with the memories of her own reckless youth. Colman as the socially awkward middle-aged educator and Jessie Buckley as her younger, wilder self, deliver a pair of stunning performances. They are well supported by a cast that includes, in addition to Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Jack Farthing, and Dagmara Dominczyk. Hélène Louvart’s dazzling cinematography, Dickon Hinchcliffe’s entrancing score, and the beauty of the Spetses, Greece, location – a character in itself – contribute to this unforgettable tale of a woman plunged into emotional crisis.
Marilyn Ferdinand A professor of comparative literature comes to a Greek resort town on a working vacation and becomes intrigued by the goings-on of a vulgar family from New York—particularly a young mother in the group. This story is the basis for actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, based on the novella by Italian writer Elena Ferrante. Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley share the lead role of Leda, as a prickly Colman recalls the difficulties of mothering two young girls, while Buckley portrays a woman on the brink of wrecking her life to satisfy her own needs. Gyllenhaal plays up the sensuousness that envelops women in relation to men and each other, conveying how our instincts are mostly incompatible with maintaining the social order. It’s refreshing to see the dark side not only of motherhood, but also of feminism mixed in the complicated person of Leda. As such, this character study of a film is fascinating viewing.
Leslie Combemale Gyllenhaal is asking why motherhood is so sacred that any woman who finds herself lacking effectively deserves our scorn and rejection. Society tells us we, as women who procreate, must be beatific and full of grace through months of sleepless nights, or, if blessed with kids close to each other in age, revolving temper tantrums. Those who don’t want children are seen as less than, or judged. Meanwhile, as exampled by the male characters in the film, men often come and go as they please in the name of their careers, leaving the lion’s share of parenting up to their wives or partners. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter (based on a novella by Italian literary sensation Elena Ferrante) is a nuanced character study that explores the sometimes-crushing realities of motherhood (and womanhood). Thanks to an extraordinary lead performance by Olivia Colman, who proves once again that she’s one of the most gifted actors of her generation, the drama follows Leda, a 48-year-old comparative literature professor on a working holiday to a Greek Island, where a younger mother’s (played by Dakota Johnson) momentary loss of her daughter on the beach triggers flashbacks to Leda’s complicated past as a young mother. The film is a slow-burning revelation, and while many critics have applauded Johnson’s pivotal supporting performance, Jessie Buckley, as the late 20s Leda, carries much of the burden of the story. Through the women’s performances (the men – including Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Joe Farthing — all take a backseat to the women in the cast), Gyllenhaal delivers an unforgettable adaptation.
Susan Wloszczyna: There is a reason why British actress Olivia Colman, at the age of 47, is hitting her prime right now. Ever since she won an Best Actress Oscar for her role as England’s forlornly ditzy and rabbit-adoring Queen Anne in The Favourite, she’s become an English version of Meryl Streep. There seems to be nothing she can’t do. Whether it’s her unusual role as the daughter of a dementia sufferer played by the Anthony Hopkins in last year’s The Father, which led to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod or her Emmy-winning portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II on TV’s The Crown. Then there is her horridly demeaning godmother and eventual stepmother of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character on Fleabag, which earned Colman a supporting spot on the 2019 Emmy ballot.
Nell Minow: Brilliant performances by Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Dagmara Dominczyk, and Jessie Buckley highlight first-time writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s moody story of love, loss, memory, and regret. Gyllenhaal keeps us wondering what is real and what is imagined until we understand that the line between them does not matter. Whether the fears and longing Leda feels are reflected in the people around her or whether what we see is some Jungian manifestation of her feelings of disconnect and guilt is not important. What matters is a sensitive portrayal of the conflicts we all face in balancing our own needs with those of the people we love.
Jennifer Merin Maggie Gyllenhall’s superb directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, is unquestionably worthy of AWFJ’s Movie of the Week endorsement. The femme-centric film revolves around a middle-age professor (Olivia Colman) who seeks peace and quite at a beach villa on a Greek island, but is soon surrounded by a loud and crass vacationing family. Watching the uneasy relationship between the young mother and her daughter releases disturbing memories of her own young motherhood and her difficulties in managing family life. Gyllenhaal’s screen adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel is a seething, tumultuous and thoroughly gripping delve into the contradictory impulses of motherhood. Performances by Olivia Colman and the entire cast are sublime. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore You cannot ignore Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stunning directorial debut. The Lost Daughter finds Leda (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged professor on holiday, reminiscing about the early years of motherhood. When a mother and young daughter down the beach catch her attention, she cannot help but live and relive vicariously through them. Based on the novel by Elena Ferrante and adapted for the screen by Gyllenhaal, this complex and brutal look at the maternal instinct will strike your rawest nerve. Read full review.
Cate Marquis Olivia Colman impresses again with a layered performance as a prickly, complicated middle-aged woman vacationing alone at a beach-side resort in The Lost Daughter. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a moody, mysterious psychological drama that gives little away but Olivia Colman is marvelous as the difficult yet somehow heartbreaking woman at its center, a woman who sends mixed signals and seems broken by her past and a complicated relationship with motherhood. Colman’s character’s present-day drama plays out alongside alternating flashback scenes starring an also-wonderful Jessie Buckley.
Title: The Lost Daughter
Directors: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Running Time: 121 minutes
Screenwriter: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Distribution Company: Netflix
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin