With rumours of a four-minute standing ovation at the 78th Venice International Film Festival and a whole host of prestigious film nominations to its name already, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut has already been a hit with Hollywood and film critics alike. The Lost Daughter, written, produced and directed by Gyllenhaal, is based on Italian author Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel La Figlia Oscura but is best known for its wonderful star-studded cast and position within Netflix’s Top 10 Most-Watched movies the week it was released.
Although critically acclaimed films are at risk of poor viewer reviews at the expense of highbrow artistic and dramatic commendation, this film seems to buck the trend for me. The Lost Daughter is a wonderfully realistic, positively interesting and exceptionally acted piece of work that puts Maggie Gyllenhaal in an exciting position for her directing future. The film’s ability to go beyond the realms of Netflix flop whilst remaining free of the cultured stuffiness critical acclaim often leans towards, is a testament to this film’s success as a whole composition. I am pleased to say that The Lost Daughter offers something rare to the Netflix world, with its engaging yet psychologically complex narrative, only boosted by exciting casting choices and its wonderful female lead. This film is certainly not one to miss.
The Lost Daughter follows Leda Caruso (played by Olivia Colman), a middle-aged college professor specialising in Italian literature, as she holidays alone in Greece. On the beach, Leda meets young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her menacing extended family, slowing becoming consumed by Nina and her young daughter’s troublesome relationship. Leda is reminded of her own experiences of motherhood, thinking back to the early days of her academic career (Jessie Buckley plays young Leda) in which she juggles the difficulties of parenting two young daughters and working on her studies. An impulsive act brings to light some of the past confusions Leda is still grappling with and pushes her to make decisions she cannot explain. The unfolding dynamics in Nina’s family are reflected in the unfolding of Leda’s life decisions revealed in her flashbacks, pushing Leda deeper into the swarm of Nina’s domineering family and into the hands of her own memories.
If the casting choices made for this film don’t already set a high precedent for expectations on screen, the vividness of the characters from Ferrante’s novel set the stakes even higher. With big figures such as Olivia Colman and Maggie Gyllenhaal putting their names on the project, audiences would expect nothing less than award-worthy acting, and I am pleased to report that the reality of the film does not disappoint.
With such complex ideas at play throughout The Lost Daughter’s narrative, the array of fantastic acting ability allows for the interesting topics of motherhood, self-reflection, and inner conflict to be portrayed authentically and with immense depth. The ease at which Olivia Colman embodies Leda’s classic English manner and the subtlety in her portrayal of inner turmoil as she contemplates the past are particular highlights. Jessie Buckley’s portrayal of a younger Leda only compliments the realness of the character already established by Colman. Although strongly supported by the likes of Normal People’s Paul Mescal, Oscar-nominated actor Ed Harris and critically acclaimed Peter Sarsgaard, Colman and Buckley’s collective performance as Leda is a key component of the film’s ultimate success. It must be said that I have never seen motherhood portrayed so honestly and realistically on screen, and this truly comes down to the skill of the film’s leading ladies.
A personal favourite element of this film is the narrative’s haunting ability to tackle taboo topics that are rarely depicted on screen. Whilst keeping the integrity of the original writing in literary adaptions to the screen can be tricky to do well, the impact of Leda Caruso’s story is not lost here. Gyllenhaal’s screenwriting captures the nuances of guilt and shame that comes with feeling trapped by the role that is expected to come naturally to you. Through the quality of the writing, audiences properly enter Leda’s mind and experiences that portray a melancholy yet completely believable side to being a mother that leaves the audience contemplating what they’ve just watched. It is a sign of an excellent film to be left thinking through the layers of a narrative, hours after a film has finished and, for me, The Lost Daughter fulfilled this brief.
The Lost Daughter really is worth a watch, if only to see Olivia Colman in another outstanding role. Having said that, the promise of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut makes this an exciting piece of work that I think stands her in good stead for her future in Hollywood’s directing world.
Illustration: Rosie Bromiley