For a directorial debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal certainly gives the impression that she’s done this before. Same can be said about Regina King with last year’s One Night in Miami. I firmly believe King should have been nominated for best director and I firmly believe that Gyllenhaal will this year at the upcoming Academy Awards. Both women share similarities with their debut feature films – besides both adapted, one from a stage play and one from a novel, they are both character studies. Yes, one film follows 4 icons in their respective fields while one is a fictional character but nonetheless, the characters in the film adaptations are put under a microscope and their armor is stripped away scene by scene.
Gyllenhaal adapts her film from the novel of the same name by author Elena Ferrante. The story follows Leda Caruso (Olivia Coleman), a college professor and translator on a holiday in Greece with no agenda but to sit at the beach and enjoy the sun, sand, and waves. Around her, other guests, mainly a mother and her daughter gather at the beach while Leda reflects on motherhood and life and the choices she’s made over the years. As the story unfolds, a young Leda (Jessie Buckley) cuts in and out of the present day as an older Leda sees herself in the Nina (Dakota Johnson) and how she handles her young daughter.
Leda very much sees herself in Nina in present day – bringing out the worst memories Lena had as a younger mother to her two daughters Bianca (Robyn Elwell) and Martha (Ellie Blake). Leda is an imperfect person; her mistakes have followed her to his point when similar situations transpire. But even when the memories come flooding back to Leda, she doesn’t learn from her actions and questionable choices. And no matter how unnatural of a mother younger Leda was, she is still a sympathetic person despite her decisions.
Coleman as Leda is daring, rebellious, smart, cowardly, and brave. No matter the role, Coleman brings a sincerity to the character making them well rounded flawed characters. Throughout the narrative, Leda undergoes several transformations. She sees so much of herself in Nina which brings the two mothers together forming a strong connection. And despite everything Leda has gone through as a mother, she never lectures nor judges Nina’s choices. But Leda is nowhere close to a saint even in present day. She regrets leaving her girls yet found the experience being alone cathartic.
Leda is proof that even though mothers may struggle, get pushed to their breaking point, are unhappy and make rash decisions, they still love their family and will do anything for them.
Gyllenhaal’s direction should be commended. She creates a tense atmosphere around every scene between Leda and whomever she’s in contact with. When there are undesirable characters on screen, Coleman’s eyes tell say it all without her speaking a word of dialogue. In her strength, she can display weakness. With the shifts between past and present, momentum takes a bit of a hit but Gyllenhaal’s skill behind the camera makes up for it, able to recover quickly and keep moving the story forward without losing a step. Gyllenhaal’s screenplay tells two stories essentially where two women play the same role. And both Coleman and Buckley give intense performances as Leda.
The script is certainly ambitious, a story worth telling so others who may be struggling as a parent, who may not think they’re perfect can feel understood. It’s a complete story, beautifully shot by cinematographer Helene Louvart with a gorgeous landscape of Greece as a backdrop. The cinematography gives off an intimacy with every frame – all the emotional weight on Leda’s shoulders pours out of her.
Emotionally, The Lost Daughter is overwhelmingly full of silent pain, suffering and trauma. Coleman, Buckley, and Johnson each are beautifully tragic with their performances. With Ed Harris in a supporting role, the talent of Gyllenhaal’s cast does all they can to keep the attention of the viewer. I couldn’t help but feel Coleman, Buckley’ and Johnson’s pain – their struggle became easy to understand even if you don’t agree with their choices, they are still human. Yes, Buckley and Coleman play the same character but they both have a different approach to Leda, but both tell a complete story with two halves.
Behind the camera, Maggie Gyllenhaal proves her talent with a dense character study of two mothers from three different points of view. All the good is amplified and all the destruction is brought out of the shadows and perfectly illuminated by Olivia Coleman, Jessie Buckley, and Dakota Johnson’s performances. Gyllenhaal’s story lives up to the ambitious undertaking. Full of tense situations, hostile environments, emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs, a sense of peace concludes the narrative making The Lost Daughter feel complete.
Written By: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Directed By: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Music By: Dickon Hinchliffe
Cinematography: Helene Louvart
Starring: Olivia Coleman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Paul Mescal, Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris, Jack Farthing, Dagmara Dominczyk
Where to Watch: Netflix
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Running Time: 2 Hours 1 Minute
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
My Score: 4 out of 5
Based On: The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante