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The Lost Daughter

Actor-turned-filmmaker Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a bold directorial debut, bringing Elena Ferrante's novel to the screen with an exceptional performance by Olivia Colman.
By Sarah Ward
December 16, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
December 16, 2021
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UPDATE, December 23, 2021: The Lost Daughter released in select Australian cinemas on Thursday, December 16, and will be available to stream via Netflix on Friday, December 31.

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Watching Olivia Colman play a complicated woman is like staring at the ocean: it's never the same twice, even just for a second; it couldn't be more unpredictable, no matter how comfortable it appears; and all that surface texture bobs, floats, swells, gleams and glides atop leagues of unseen complexity. That's always been true of the British actor's absolute best performances, which could fill any body of water with their power and resonance. It's there in her acidic work in The Favourite, which won her an Oscar, and also in The Crown's more reserved turn as a different English monarch. It flowed through the devastating Tyrannosaur, which perhaps first truly showed the world exactly what Colman could do — and has marked her Academy Award-nominated supporting part in The Father, plus TV standouts Peep Show, Broadchurch, The Night Manager and Fleabag.

It's fitting, then, that The Lost Daughter tasks Colman with glaring at the sea, and doing so both intently and often. A necessity of the narrative, as penned on the page by My Brilliant Friend's Elena Ferrante and adapted for the screen by actor-turned-filmmaker Maggie Gyllenhaal, it's a touch that washes through the movie with extra force due to its star. Colman plays comparative literature professor Leda, who fills much of her time peering at the ocean as she summers on a Greek island — and also people-watching thanks to the loud, entitled Queens family that keep invading her chosen patch of sand. While both gazing at the waves and taking in the onshore domestic dramas, Leda sees her own ebbs, flows, thorns and flaws reflected back.

Vacationing alone, Leda isn't on a getaway as much as she's escaping — not actively, but because that's her default mode. She's never willing to stray far from her work, shuffling through papers as she sunbathes and flirtatious young resort manager Will (Paul Mescal, Normal People) moves her lounger to keep her in the shade; however, as flashbacks show, the urge to flee all markers of apparent normalcy has long gushed in her veins. Leda tells anyone who asks that she has two daughters (Bianca is 25 and Martha is 23, she frequently offers), but they're heard via phone calls rather than seen as adults. She's prickly when mum-to-be Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk, Succession), of those noisy interlopers, asks if her extended group can take over Leda's beach umbrella. But in Nina (Dakota Johnson, The Nowhere Inn), the raven-haired mother of frequently screaming toddler Elena (debutant Athena Martin Anderson), she spies more of herself than she's been willing to confront for decades.

The Lost Daughter's title references an incident one sunny day when Elena disappears as Callie, Nina and company — the latter's shady husband Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Invisible Man) as well — idle by the water's edge. The Americans react with distress, but Leda calmly strides forth amid the chaos, all while battling memories of being a young mum (Jessie Buckley, I'm Thinking of Ending Things) searching for her own absent child. Indeed, loss and escape are serpentine concepts here, winding through Leda's past, her affinity for the clearly unhappy Nina and the second wave of mayhem that erupts when Elena's beloved doll also goes missing. The concept of trouble in paradise proves just as layered, infecting idylls scenic and, in pondering the supposed bliss that we're all told motherhood brings, societally enforced.

The idea that bringing life into the world isn't the existence-defining triumph of femininity it's sugar-coated as doesn't simply sit at the heart of Ferrante's novel and Gyllenhaal's debut stint behind the lens — from the instant that Colman is seen collapsing on the pebble-strewn shoreline in the picture's opening, it laps over The Lost Daughter's every moment. Leda is a woman haunted by everything having kids has brought, as well as guilt-stricken by all that's followed, and this bold and affecting movie confronts that rocky truth. It's the filmic antithesis to keeping calm and carrying on, or relishing the rewards while disregarding the sacrifices, whether Leda is trying to retain a sense of self in the feature's journeys backwards, grappling with the gnawing consequences of her choices and the parallels in Nina's exasperation, or obsessing over dolls, those symbols of maternity routinely given to girls at birth. 

For any director, this is audacious and intricate terrain, but Gyllenhaal is as exceptional and daring a filmmaker as she is a performer. As her own impressive acting career demonstrates, complete with knotty and slippery turns in Secretary, Sherrybaby, The Kindergarten Teacher and The Deuce, she could've played Leda and just as phenomenal a film would've likely resulted. Her decision to enlist Colman doesn't only spring from humility, though, but from spying what we all notice whenever the star graces any screen. One of Colman's extraordinary skills is her knack for ensuring that her characters could swim in any direction and, whatever swings and lurches they take, it always feels like the most natural development there is. She's a master not just of complicated women, but of conveying the innate and relentless state of being complicated.

Daughters get lost, mothers struggle, prickly exchanges pepper the picturesque setting — Leda isn't afraid to voice her displeasure to Callie and her relatives, or to teens ruining a trip to the local cinema, and she's positively awkward with Lyle (Ed Harris, Westworld), the caretaker of her holiday apartment — but so much of The Lost Daughter's tension rushes from Colman's performance. From Buckley's, too, with the movie's two Ledas echoing each other — the woman she once was and the one she becomes — with precision and synergy that's too shrewd and naturalistic to resemble mere mimicry. It's also telling that Gyllenhaal has cinematographer Hélène Louvart (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) lens the film like a volatile memory, probing closeups, lingering details and slight but inescapable jitteriness all included, while the jazzy score by Dickon Hinchliffe (The Third Day) skews towards the melodic. Everything about Leda's experiences has been stressful rather than peaceful, but the prevailing view of being a mum keeps trying to tell the world otherwise — and both the character and the film refuse to accept those false platitudes.

The Lost Daughter releases in select Brisbane cinemas on Thursday, December 16, and will be available to stream via Netflix on Friday, December 31.

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