An elegant psychological portrait of motherhood

The Lost Daughter

(US, Greece, 2021)
Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

 Review by Iva Apostolova

This Netflix original, released last December, is the directorial debut of Hollywood actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. While it was filmed on the Greek island of Spetses, the movie is far from a vacation flick. Relying heavily on flashbacks, the story follows the life of Leda, a British-born comparative literature professor living in the U.S., played by the phenomenal Olivia Coleman (the up-and-coming Irish actress Jesse Buckley plays young Leda).

While on a working holiday in Greece, Leda gets mixed up in the life of a young American woman, Nina, brilliantly portrayed by Dakota Johnson. Nina is the trophy wife of the possessive, borderline-abusive, shady businessman Tony, played by the handsome and talented English actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who manages an impeccable Bronx accent. Tony is not the only one who has Nina in his clutches – his large and noisy family makes sure Nina is never alone or too far away from her needy four-year-old daughter.

Leda finds herself drawn to young Nina as she recalls her own brutal struggles with motherhood and marriage. But it would be both an unfair judgement and an oversimplification to say that the movie is about the dark side of motherhood. For one, when people hear “the dark side” of anything, they expect a thriller of sorts, which The Lost Daughter is definitely not. In fact, it is an elegant, even-paced, psychological portrait that does not toy with the viewer or exploit her emotions but, on the contrary, puts everything on the table from the start.

The movie is based on a novella of the same name by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. It is, in my view, one of her less well-developed stories. However, Ferrante (an alias), whose identity was unknown for a long time, is a very exciting writer whose four volumes of Neapolitan Novels are a must-read on every serious reader’s list. Ferrante’s signature is scalpel-precision analysis of the female psyche and the complicated phenomenon that is motherhood. In that sense, The Lost Daughter does not disappoint in exposing the many ways in which women from all walks of life can and do get trapped within the confines of one identity and one (very labour intensive!) role, more often than not that of the mother.

Gyllenhaal has done a great job with the adaptation of Ferrante’s novella – what a directorial debut! That being said, if the viewer is not familiar with Ferrante’s works, a few scenes may seem idiosyncratic and self-indulgent, at least on first watch. For example, the restaurant scene where Leda interacts with the cottage keeper Lyle, played by the indefatigable Ed Harris, is a little obtuse in its messaging. Regardless, I found myself going back to The Lost Daughter on quite a few occasions and rewatching scenes that stayed with me. I would definitely recommend watching the movie at home where one can “pause” and “rewind.”

Running time: 2hr 1min
Streaming on Netflix
Rating: 14A

Iva Apostolova is a professor of philosophy at Dominican University College.

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