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‘The Lost Daughter’ Film Review: Maggie Gyllenhaal Captures the Secret Life of Mothers

Venice 2021: Her debut as a writer-director (adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel) is a masterpiece of mood and subtlety

There’s so much that no one tells you about becoming a mother. Sure, it’s a beautiful, awe-inspiring, uniquely female experience that can be very fulfilling, but motherhood is also a complicated, joyful, chaotic, fun, exhausting, and ever-changing state of being. It’s those unspoken plights that first-time writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal tackles with nuance, bluntness, and delicacy in her adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s “The Lost Daughter.” 

Leda (Olivia Colman) is an academic on holiday at a small coastal town in Greece. She stays at a lighthouse, which has been remodeled into a sort of vacation home near the beach. The proprietor (Ed Harris) tries to make some small talk, but Leda is blunt, though polite, and dismissive. It’s clear she wants no company and makes no apologies about it.

On a leisurely day by the beach, armed with a bag full of books to lose herself in, she observes a large family squabbling nearby. She becomes fixated on Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who is having a hell of a time trying to get her daughter to listen to her. Nina’s husband appears but doesn’t help with the little girl; instead, Leda observes how he dismisses Nina’s concerns. 

Soon the little girl goes missing, and Leda starts having flashbacks to a time where she lost one of her daughters on a beach, long ago. So she ventures off, ends up finding the little girl, and carries her back to her mother. But there’s something not quite right with Leda now. She dodges questions from Nina’s family about her children, and her own life. And the little girl’s doll goes missing, which causes Nina a lot of stress. But Leda, seeing a bit of herself in Nina, starts to reveal pieces of herself, and those pieces of Leda’s past come together, revealing her disconnect from her own children. 

It’s inconceivable that this is Gyllenhaal’s first time behind the camera: The skills and unique perspective she brings to Ferrante’s text not only elevates the material but also makes it personal and enveloping. Her direction is both an examination and an analysis of how mothers are perceived in the world, but she’s not making a statement. Gyllenhaal is gentle when needed and blunt when required, but her eye captures every emotion and element in the moment.

Never casting judgment on any of the characters, instead imploring the viewer to question their own perception and judgment, Gyllenhaal effortlessly guides Colman to the next moment, adding an anxiety to the stillness the composed Leda carries. For her part, Colman is absolutely fantastic: Even when Leda is sitting still, Colman’s body language, posture and facial expressions deliver worlds of emotions. The way her eyes observe Nina — empathetic, questioning, mixed with a bit of longing — is magnificent. There are no empty moments in the film; even some look or movement on the screen that might at first seem like a throwaway moment (particularly anything pertaining to the missing doll) gives way to a slow unraveling of the scene that pulls in the viewer.

The additional cast rounds out the film smoothly. Every role has purpose, every character their own story and arc. Johnson’s Nina is complicated and complex, while Harris offers layers beneath the exterior and a unique contrast to what the audience might be feeling about Nina and Leda. It’s a talented ensemble where every role matters. 

Additionally, the quiet backdrop of the Greek beach city adds an interesting context for both Leda’s inner dialogue and the viewer’s perception. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart (whose credits include two episodes of HBO’s Ferrante adaptation “My Brilliant Friend”) creates a landscape that matches the stillness of the town to the self-analysis and growing disenchantment — and guilt — of the characters. It’s always a subtle push; the slow tranquility of the surf turns thrashing in parallel to Leda’s own attempts to free herself from her self-induced punishments. 

“The Lost Daughter” is a masterwork in perception and all that society places upon mothers and motherhood. It captures the pressure put upon moms never to complain and always to smile, even when you’re screaming inside. It’s a triumphant debut for Gyllenhaal.

“The Lost Daughter” opens in U.S. theaters on December 17 and on Netflix on December 31.