Netflix review – The Lost Daughter (2021)

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It’s one of our last taboos. The conventional view of motherhood is that everybody – the mother in particular – is supposed to be happy about it.  Glowing, even. We may be more inclined to talk about the medical conditions that can go with it, but the idea of not wanting to have children, having little or no maternal instinct, is still something we shy away from. Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t have any such qualms in her directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, with its lead character describes herself with confrontational honesty as “an unnatural mother.”

Academic Leda (Olivia Colman) is on what she describes as a working holiday on a Greek island. All she has for company are her beloved books, but her solitude is disrupted by a noisy American family and she takes their attempts to re-arrange the beach chairs as an invasion of her personal space. Yet, despite those raised hackles, she finds herself fascinated by the group, especially Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young woman who seems to trigger uncomfortable memories. And when her little girl goes missing, Leda gets involved to the extent that the family view her in a totally different light. What they don’t realise is that she’s also done something much more cruel.

That’s the film’s main narrative, but Leda’s back story – all those memories that Nina is blissfully unaware of provoking – is both sub-plot and backstory, demanding just as much of our time and attention in what is a daring, if not provocative, look at motherhood. The younger Leda (Jessie Buckley) is destined for a glittering academic career but the demands of marriage, and the two daughters that come with it, get in the way of the life she wants for herself. The result is ill-concealed resentment at their constant demands and, as she becomes more emotionally distant, they crave her attention more loudly and, to her ears, more gratingly. The result is a mother who, while creating a distant relationship with her children, doesn’t feel any pangs of responsibility and meeting Nina sparks a desire to re-connect with her girls. Surprised at how strongly that desire burns, she has absolutely no idea of how to even make the first move.

Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s La Figlia Oscura (which won her the Best Screenplay award at Venice), is full of bold, challenging moves, not the least of which having a central character who, on the surface, is both unsympathetic and so frank as to make other characters and the audience uncomfortable. Casting Olivia Colman, with her endearingly warm personal image, is a masterstroke: there’s none of that here, more an exploration of Leda’s darker side coupled with a reluctance to open up to anybody – even though she’s easier to understand than she would ever admit. Jessie Buckley as the younger Leda is equally inspired, a perfect match with her older self, sowing the seeds of what it to come and creating a recognisably complete character.

A film that’s difficult to categorise – part thriller, part psychological drama is probably the closest – The Lost Daughter topples your expectations like a row of dominoes. Despite that benign title and usually charming lead, it’s a film full of simmering, passive-aggressive resentment and, most importantly, shows Gyllenhaal’s acting talents have moved seamlessly to behind the camera to create a new and distinctive voice. At a time of year packed with overly cheesy feel good family movies, this is the adult antidote we didn’t realise we needed.

★★★★


Drama | Cert: 15 | Netflix, 31 December 2021 | Dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal | Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal.

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