Film Review – The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter

All Leda wants to do is go on vacation. She booked a beachfront resort in Greece so that she can take a few days for herself, read, swim, and do a little writing. However, we realize that peace is something Leda will not get here. A loud foghorn and the beam from a nearby lighthouse keep her up at night. Bugs and rotten fruit populate her room. A large and noisy family come barging onto the beach, disturbing her quiet. Strangers and resort employees badger her with mundane conversation. Leda grits her teeth and tries to get through it, but her compulsive nature has her spitting out rude and unflattering remarks almost against her will. Suffice to say: something is wrong with Leda.

In her feature length debut as writer and director, Maggie Gyllenhaal adapts Elena Ferrante’s book, The Lost Daughter (2021), with rapidly escalating tension. While the oceanfront setting is idyllic, the story works in the complete opposite direction. Leda (Olivia Colman) is an enigma, who is aware of basic human interaction but is incapable of following it. When the noisy family asks her to switch beach chairs so they can all sit together, she declines. When the resort’s caretaker, Lyle (Ed Harris) shows her kindness and even a hint of romance, Leda recoils. She notices a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson) interact with her daughter, and this sparks Leda’s interest. But when Nina attempts to befriend Leda, it only leads to awkward and embarrassing situations.

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Leda is a difficult character to pull off. If she goes too far over the line, she would become intolerable to follow. But as things move forward, Gyllenhaal starts to chip away at Leda’s shell. Flashbacks introduce us to a younger version of Leda (Jessie Buckley) and the life she had decades earlier. The two stories coincide. As the young Leda bears the stress of raising two daughters while trying to pursue her literary dreams, we see the present-day Leda suffering from the bad decisions and regrets that she has made. The two are opposite sides of the same coin, working to give the character full dimension.  

Both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley are fantastic playing the same character at different ages. For Colman, she suppresses the bubbly and charismatic person we see in interviews to play a person hardened by life. She seems happy in her solitude, and when others try to wiggle their way into her company, she sabotages that connection (sometimes intentionally). For Buckley, she plants the emotional seeds into Leda that will eventually take root and blossom in her later years. To be married and a parent at such a young age is a life-altering change that would be difficult for anyone to manage. We see Leda often succumb to her frustrations with her kids and her work. She routinely chooses the wrong path if only to give herself an escape. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Leda cruel, but in this stage of her life she is torn between the duties of her family and her own career ambitions.

Gyllenhaal’s direction amplifies the emotional rollercoasters happening all over the place. Hélène Louvart’s cinematography opts to hold on to both Colman and Buckley’s faces in extreme closeup for a painstakingly long time, building the sense of claustrophobia. Affonso Gonçalves’ editing jumps between both timelines freely, diving into the action without wasting time having to explain what is going on for the audience. Gyllenhaal focuses in on small details that heighten Leda’s growing anxiety. Scornful looks from other guests, a building sense of paranoia and dread, a cockroach, a perfectly timed pinecone falling from a tree – these all add to an uncomfortable feeling closing in on Leda. In the latter half, with the tension ramped up and Leda’s emotional turmoil boiling over, that we start to wonder if her fears are real or self-inflicted.

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The biggest accomplishment is in how the production successfully makes Leda both repellent and engaging. Leda does and says some truly awful things, but we suspect that she often doesn’t understand why. One decision she makes, involving Nina and her daughter, is so far out of left field that we question what could possibly compel her to do such a thing. We could point to the rocky relationship she had with her own daughters, but that would be too easy. Maybe the fact that Leda’s story doesn’t offer easy answers is the intended effect. Nobody is perfect, especially when it comes to parenthood. Sometimes we act against our better judgment and make mistakes. Perhaps being a good mother doesn’t necessarily mean doing everything right but acknowledging when things go wrong. It’s that self-awareness that gives us our humanity.

The Lost Daughter is an impressive debut feature for Gyllenhaal, showcasing an intelligence and empathy that I suspect will only strengthen as her writing/directing career continues. Some first-time filmmakers make a competent movie, others might make good ones. Gyllenhaal has made something great.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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