The Lost Daughter based on the book of the same name by Elena Ferrante and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal is a raw exploration of motherhood. The book is a fast read and it is very interesting. I found myself wondering how Maggie would bring it to life onscreen and I can honestly say she did a fantastic job with it. Motherhood is something that isn’t often talked about in a real way that showcases the struggles women face. The Lost Daughter shows us that and more.
Olivia Colman plays Leda, a college professor who is spending her vacation beachside on an island in Greece. She’s soaking up all the peace and quiet she can get but it’s quickly disrupted when an Italian family arrives and changes everything. As soon as they arrive, its obvious that Leda’s relaxing vacation is over. She immediately becomes oddly obsessed with a young mother named Nina who is played by Dakota Johnson. Leda begins to watch Nina and her little girl Elena, and it becomes almost like entertainment for her.
One day Nina’s daughter goes missing and Leda ends up finding her. Nina is ecstatic and so grateful to Leda, but things are not always as they seem. For reasons that are never truly explained in the film or the book for that matter, Leda takes Elena’s doll. The only reason I can think of for Leda taking the doll is simply to watch Nina unravel. I think that Leda sees a bit of her own self in Nina, however, there also seems to be a resentment as well. In the film we see a series of flashbacks to the young Leda’s life with her husband Joe (Jack Farthing) and their two young daughters Bianca and Martha.
In the flashbacks we see Leda in the good moments of motherhood but also the bad ones. The young Leda portrayed quite beautifully by Jessie Buckley is doing all she can to try and balance her career while being a wife and mother. It’s a difficult thing for her and it’s showcased in a way that makes you feel for Leda and other mothers out there struggling. Leda’s slowly coming apart. She feels like she’s losing parts of herself, and her husband isn’t as supportive as he could be. It eventually becomes too much for her and when she finally gets a taste of freedom on a work trip that takes her away from the girls, it ignites a spark in her that makes her never want to give up that freedom.
It is a heartbreaking thing to see Leda so easily walk away from her children and her husband, but it makes you think because let’s be honest, most of what we see onscreen is the husband leaving the wife and kids behind. That reversal though tough, is one that needed to be shown. Mothers take on so much and they are expected to be able to do it all with a smile and without complaint. Leda tries to tell Joe how she’s feeling but he doesn’t seem to be listening. He doesn’t really wake up until she has an affair and leaves him.
When Leda watches Nina with Elena, its clear she is seeing a similar pattern. Like Leda when she was young, Nina also has her secrets. She’s got something going on with Will (Paul Mescal), a young man who is working on the island for the summer. Leda catches them together and its almost as if she wants to punish Nina by not returning the doll because of this. It may also be linked to that feeling of resentment we mentioned. When Leda first arrives on her trip, she’s greeted by Will and he’s really sweet to her and the two begin to bond. Leda seeing Will and Nina mess around clearly sets something off in her because what does she have to gain from keeping a little kids doll? Absolutely nothing.
Throughout the film, Leda has multiple chances to return Elena’s doll to Nina, but she never does. Leda catching Nina and Will together is just another perfect excuse for her not to give it back. At times Leda appears to be enjoying what Nina is going through with Elena which is actually cruel. Leda herself was struggling as a young mother and it pushed her to a breaking point. For her to basically be contributing to Nina’s emotional breakdown is just wrong. Leda does eventually make the choice to give the doll back to Nina and her reaction is one that I did and did not expect.
The Lost Daughter was Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, and she captured every single moment of Elena Ferrante’s book. I was thoroughly impressed with how she brought the story to life, and I think that you could watch it without reading the book. There are still a few things that I feel we didn’t get enough information on. One of the things that doesn’t get answered has to do with Nina’s whole family. Early in the movie, Leda has a mini confrontation with Nina’s sister-in law Callie when she refuses to move chairs. Will who witnessed this, warns Leda not to do it again because their family are “bad people.” Aside from the men in the family being complete and utter assholes, we really don’t find out what makes them “bad people.”
After watching The Lost Daughter, we can see why it has received such rave reviews and why it’s received awards already. It’s such a good film that is painful yet relevant. Both Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson gave great performances but if we’re being honest, Jessie Buckley was definitely a standout for us. Her portrayal of the young Leda took us through so many emotional highs and lows. We truly believed everything she was feeling. When I watched the film and read the book, I thought of what my own mother went through. Unless you’re a mother, you cannot truly fathom all of the emotions they go through. The things Elena Ferrante wrote about are not the things we see. We don’t go behind the curtain of motherhood to see the reality and we are completely in awe of this story and its going to be one that stays with us for a very long time.