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Review: The Lost Daughter

March 27, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Lost Daughter is nominated for Best Actress (Olivia Colman), Best Supporting Actress (Jessie Buckley) and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 94th Academy Awards.

What does it mean to be a bad mother? And is the feeling that you aren’t doing a good enough job something that all parents grapple with? This is the question at the heart of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter.

Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name, the story centres around Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), a comparative literature professor in her upper-forties. When we first meet her in the film, she is settling in for a beach vacation in Greece.

But her peaceful vacation is interrupted by the arrival of a rich family who sprawl out across the beach. Among them is Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who is there with her three-year-old daughter Elena (Athena Martin). Leda starts watching them, which triggers memories to when her own two daughters were young.

Through this, Gyllenhaal’s film unfolds as a dual narrative, with flashbacks to Leda as a younger woman (played by Jessie Buckley) who is growing increasingly overwhelmed trying to balance her career with caring for her two kids. In the present day scenes, Nina’s daughter is left despondent after her doll goes missing, but we, the audience, know that Leda has stashed the doll in her bag and taken it back to her hotel room. But why did she take the girl’s doll? This is one of the film’s central mysteries that the flashbacks help unpack.

The film is carried by Colman’s brilliantly nuanced performance as Leda, a woman who at first appears fairly normal but says and does slightly odd things that suggest she is off-balance. It’s Colman’s uncanny ability to portray a range of different emotions and turn on a dime, often within the same scene, that makes her portrayal so compelling to watch. For her part, Buckley does a good job of matching Colman in the flashback scenes, with similar mannerisms that make them recognizable as the same character.

For her first film as director, Gyllenhaal has assembled quite the cast, including supporting roles for Ed Harris as the owner of the hotel that Leda is staying at; Paul Mescal as an Irish student who works at the beach; Jack Farthing as Leda’s partner in flashbacks; and Gyllenhaal’s real life partner Peter Sarsgaard as a fellow professor. Johnson also makes the most of her screen time as the demure Nina, whose own anxieties as a mother are bubbling to the surface, something that the actress can play very well.

What is perhaps most admirable about The Lost Daughter is that Gyllenhaal has made a complex and challenging film about the dark side of motherhood (“children are a crushing responsibility,” Leda tells an expectant mother at one point), showing that it isn’t all sunshine and roses and some people maybe aren’t that well equipped for it. It’s a topic that seems taboo, but one that is interesting to see addressed in such an honest and frank way, with Gyllenhaal showing impressive control over the film’s tone and themes for a first feature.

I think Netflix did the film a bit of a disservice by marketing it as a psychological thriller, when in reality it is more of a slow-burning character drama about trauma and motherhood. The film meanders a bit at just over two hours, and I understand why its climax has been divisive. But The Lost Daughter still functions as an interesting character study, that is carried by Colman’s simmering performance.

The Lost Daughter is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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