Kimberly Reyes takes a look at Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter.
The opening scene of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut begins like a great noir—our protagonist Leda (Olivia Colman) is in grave danger on a dark beach. She stumbles and falls onto the sand, and we know the entire film will be an exploration of how she got to this place. This immediate cinematic tension works best if the pressure valve leaks enough for the audience to halfway forget that something bad is inevitable, or if we are ok with “bad” happening.
The film is based on the 2008 Elena Ferrante novel of the same name. Live Streaming from a New York Women in Film & Television event on 9th December, Gyllenhaal recalled being tapped to direct the book adaptation by the pseudonymous author—Ferrante’s publishing company told her, “you can have the rights, but the contract is void unless you direct it.” Gyllenhaal was playing a porn director in the HBO series “The Deuce” at the time.
The book takes places in a seaside village near Naples, but the movie adaptation follows a late-40s Leda as she vacations in Greece. Leda is fascinated and repulsed by the youthful wildness she sees in others around the beach town. She becomes obsessed with one young mother in particular, Nina, deftly played by Dakota Johnson, whose entire chaotic, Queens family descends on this beach every year. Nina is exquisite and malicious and her particular brand of selfishness reminds Leda of her younger self, played by Jessie Buckley through flashbacks.
The modern Leda is far from likable—she’s facetious, awkward, intrusive, and condescending—and she’s attracted even more unsavory characters in Greece. Everyone wants to know Leda’s story, as she won’t scuttle away into the background like a proper woman of her age. Once it’s clear she can’t be muted, the crazies from Queens settle into an uneasy toleration of her, but for a price.
Perhaps the best scenes in the film are between Leda and Will (Paul Mescal), the young, handsome beach attendant and business-school student from Dublin. They circle each other playing the most heedless and enthralling game of chicken, as subtlety is where both actors soar. Mescal’s character stands out for how gendered his role normally is: the one-note temptress. This is surely an intentional decision as Gyllenhaal is unapologetic in the centering of all things feminine throughout the movie. The film is also not shy about showing motherhood and mothers in very complicated, nuanced, and unflattering ways. Gyllenhaal’s freshman courage in sitting with discomfort is why the film succeeds.
Buckley’s Leda is more frazzled and wide-eyed than Colman’s. Through Buckley’s portrayal we learn more about Leda’s life choices and why she is so edgy, and so inundated with regret. Ultimately Leda’s time in Greece ends up being anything but a vacation because it may be the first time she can see herself, reflected in the worst of others. She is, as Gyllenhaal explained during the livestream, a “woman struggling with almost unbearable pain which is caused, I think, by almost unbearable pain”.
The Lost Daughter is in cinem,as frm 17th December 2021.