The Lost Daughter (2021)
Words by Lola Dele
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The Lost Daughter (2021)

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Sunlight dapples on water, waves crash, and cicadas whirr. The air feels thick and heavy. Beneath the haze of summer, the film seethes quietly. Fruit sits rotting in a basket. A worm crawls from the mouth of a doll. Pristine in white, except for a spot of blood, Leda (Olivia Coleman) stands ghostly against a dark sea. So begins The Lost Daughter, brimming with foreboding. Leda’s name, even, is drenched in canonic sorrow; first in Greek mythology, later in the WB Yeats poem. The sense of threat is palpable.
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Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is thoughtful and transgressive.  Dickon Hinchcliffe’s dreamy jazz score combined with Hélène Louvart’s cinematography creates a rich and languid atmosphere.  The film follows Leda, a 48-year old Comparative Languages professor, as she is dissected and examined via two parallel narratives. Firstly, in the present, as her tranquil Greek vacation is interrupted by a loud Greek-American family from Queens, and she becomes obsessed with young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson). And in the past, as a younger Leda (Jessie Buckley) grapples with motherhood, alienation, and self-sacrifice, divided between her two daughters and a desire for an academic career.


Coleman plays Leda with an awkwardness that is both endearing and off-putting. The way she looks at Nina is just slightly too intense; she flirts with her landlord (Ed Harris), but it feels forced and out of character. Her intentions towards Will who works at the beach bar (played by Paul Mescal and his 5-inch inseam shorts) are unclear: is she just looking for a friend or something else? Everything about this character seems tinged in hypocrisy. Leda tells the matriarch of the Queens family that motherhood is a “crushing responsibility”, one she was happy to escape from, but nothing about her seems happy. Her loneliness is so tangible it could play a supporting role.


Leda is petty, childish and selfish, but also kind, and witty. As a mother, she is warm and tender, but also cold, distant and self-preoccupied. We see her peel an orange in one slice like a snake for her daughters; we see her read to them, teach them, but also abandon them to attend conferences, ignore their cries for attention and snap at them. Leda describes her daughters as splitting off from her and taking something of her with them; her youngest, Martha, taking the good, and her eldest, Bianca, taking all the bad. It’s ugly, hearing a mother talk so negatively about one of her children, but also raw and honest.


There’s perhaps something of Plato’s Symposium in this; a sort of sad retelling of Aristophanes’ soulmate theory: Humans were created with four legs, four arms, and two faces, but Zeus, fearing that humans were too powerful, split them in two, condemning them to spend their lives searching for the other half of themselves. Leda has too been split, and she seems to be searching for something which was taken from her. Is it her daughters, now estranged, lost to benefit her career? Or the identity and fulfilment of academic innovation she was denied throughout motherhood?


It is unusual - taboo, even - for a film to discuss motherhood from such a lens, one of burden, self-sacrifice, regret, and lost identity.  While the discourse around reluctant mothers is beginning to increase, The Lost Daughter is unique in its unwillingness to cast aspersions on women for their choices; neither villainizing nor celebrating Leda. Gyllenhaal’s film is an unflinching character study and one that leaves a lot unspoken. It’s not an easy film at any rate - the pacing is slow and it can be difficult, uncomfortable even, to relate to characters with such relentless moral ambiguity - but one that leaves you feeling raw and tender, like a newborn.