The Lost Daughter (2021)
Written & Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal
Motherhood always makes for a promising theme to tackle in film or literature. Being a mother is an intense experience from what I can observe as a childless man. I’ve been around many mothers as a primary school teacher, both as work colleagues and my students’ parents. In American culture, mothers are often juxtaposed against Mary, the mother of Jesus, saintly figures who sacrifice themselves to care for their offspring. The debate over reproductive rights is right in the middle of these ideals, pushing the assumption that all women love being mothers once they finally experience it, not so in The Lost Daughter.
Leda (Olivia Coleman) is a middle-aged college professor on holiday in Greece. She encounters a boisterous Italian-American family who “storm the beach” and become an object of Leda’s observations. One of them, Nina (Dakota Johnson), is a young mother who suddenly conjures up Leda’s own memories of her two daughters. We learn that our protagonist was a very annoyed and stressed mother, pulled between the ambitions related to her career and the constant neediness of her children. Nina’s daughter goes missing, and Leda stumbles across her while returning to her villa. She’s met with great thanks when the child is returned, but then the family notices a doll missing. Leda has secretly stolen the doll away and feigns ignorance when they question her about it. The more we learn about Leda’s own troubled motherhood, the more it becomes clear she’s playing a dangerous game.
I did not enjoy The Lost Daughter. There are a lot of good things going on here, though. The premise is very promising and has a lot of space to explore and play with unreliable narrators. From what I understand, the novel does leave the reader questioning what Leda is being honest about. In the film, things are interpreted very literally, so Leda’s flashbacks are presented as truth. It’s only the movie’s final scene where I believe we’re being shown something that might not be true. A story so rooted in psychological conflict doesn’t benefit much from such literal elements; we should see things purely through Leda’s perspective so that we question what we see.
Olivia Coleman is fantastic in the lead role. Coleman has become such a consistently strong performer that she was my main draw to the picture. Her physicality makes her slide into the skins of any character so easily, and here she is playing a very typical person, at least on the outside. When Leda becomes frenzied or begins to push against social norms, the actress shines, giving the character a bit of a frightening edge. Jessie Buckley plays her young self, a great actress as well but has been given the weaker side of the character.
My biggest problem with the flashback sequences is the poorly written dialogue and poorly directed performances. Buckley never elicited sympathy from me, and I know very well that is what the movie was aiming for. It’s not her fault; it’s the script, direction, and editing. This is especially grating when Peter Sarsgaard shows up as a fellow professor Leda has a three-year affair. I wouldn’t say I dislike Sarsgaard, but he is unbearable here, and I don’t think he was supposed to be that awful. His choices in delivering what is already not the most robust dialogue just amplify the tonal inconsistency. When the film is focused on present-day Leda, it’s pretty good, but it can be jarring when we are going back and forth between the two points in time.
This is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, and it certainly feels like a first-time movie. There are moments of brilliance but a lot of more mundane filmmaking techniques. Scenes are usually two characters in dialogue, with close-ups often used to emphasize a high emotional state. We get minimal ensemble scenes, three or more characters playing off each other, which are admittedly harder to do. The story would have benefited from Leda being in spaces where she is getting ganged up on by other characters. The film also wanders a little too much without having a point to get to. When the end arrives, there isn’t a strong reaction one way or the other. The movie just sort of ends. I like ambiguity, but this doesn’t feel like that, more an attempt at poor adaptation possibly? Coleman makes it worth a watch, and I will be back for Gyllenhaal’s next effort, but this one is just not that great.