I had mixed feelings about this slow-burn Netflix drama initially, but then I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards, so the least I can say for it is that it lingers.
I watched The Lost Daughter without knowing that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut was adapted from a short novel by Elena Ferrante, the author of the remarkable Neapolitan Novels. In retrospect, it both made the film more intriguing and helped clarify some of my issues with it – especially in regards to its complicated heroine (anti-heroine?), played by luminous Olivia Colman who in the recent years has become one of my favourite actresses working today.
Colman plays Leda Caruso, a 48-year-old professor of comparative literature, whose startling introduction sees her stumbling down the beach at night time, and collapsing on the shoreline by the lapping waves. Having set up this atmosphere of mystery and calamity, the movie rewinds to a happier time, with Leda arriving at a picturesque Greek island for a working holiday. Her moment of peace and relaxation doesn’t last, as she’s beset by intrusions and interruptions that spoil the illusion of a perfect paradise. A beautiful bowl of fruit in Leda’s room turns out to be rotten; a shrill cicada lands on her pillow at night; a rogue pine cone leaves her with a bruised back.
The biggest disruption of all is a clan of loud Americans from Queens, who ruin Leda’s peaceful beachside reading. As a fellow lover of quiet times I could absolutely relate to Leda’s dismay and irritation, but this is one of many instances in the film when you’re left with a feeling that there’s something strange and overly intense about her reactions. She has an antagonistic stand-off with the heavily pregnant matriarch of the family, but it’s another member of the clan, a beautiful young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson), who catches Leda’s attention. Nina and her child touch something in Leda, summoning memories from nearly twenty years ago.
With a title like The Lost Daughter, you might expect that the story has something to do with a past tragedy or unspeakable loss, but the core of the movie is the dirty secret of motherhood: the “unnatural” mother who doesn’t take easily to the role of care-taker, and resents her children despite loving them. In the flashback sequences, which run on a sort of a parallel track to the story in the present, young Leda (Jessie Buckley) is an overwhelmed mother of two young girls, trying to balance an ambitious academic career with parenting. At times warm and doting, Leda is also irritable and frustrated, with no family help in sight, a decent but clueless husband, and a dwindling sex life. When a celebrity scholar (Peter Sarsgaard) shows an interest in her work, and a very personal interest in Leda herself, she suddenly sees a way to escape her suffocating responsibilities.
While young Leda is not always easy to watch, she and her worst, most selfish impulses are fairly easy to understand and track. There’s however much less clarity where present-day Leda is concerned. At times it’s hard to know how to interpret her motivations and unnaturally intense reactions. I suspect it’s partly because, while we get a full picture of young Leda’s family and professional lives, we know next to nothing about older Leda’s, who is alone on a holiday in a foreign country and therefore is taken outside of her normal life and relationships.
There’s also a strong hint that Leda, whose subjective, claustrophobic perspective drives the film, is an unreliable narrator, constantly misinterpreting innocuous gestures as threats. There are a few scenes in the film that seem to come straight out of a thriller, imbued with menace and malevolence – but is it all merely a product of Leda’s own disturbed mind?
The original novel is apparently narrated by Leda from start to finish, and from reading her other novels, Ferrante has a way of shining the light down the narrowest, darkest, ugliest corners of her characters’ minds and exposing them in the most unflinching fashion. In retrospect, it’s hard not to feel that, despite Olivia Colman’s brilliant, expressive performance, that first-person voice is what’s ultimately missing to really bind the character together. Film has a hard time competing with the interiority of a written word; when a book narrator states that they can’t explain why they act the way they do, it’s somehow easier to swallow than when a film character states the same. With the latter, it can at times feel like cheating.
Despite these misgivings, there’s a lot to admire about The Lost Daughter: Gyllenhaal’s assured direction, the strong literary streak, beautiful cinematography that always keeps the viewer close to Leda’s point of view, and especially the performances. Colman and Buckley bring a lot of humanity to a character who is not always easy to like (funnily enough, Buckley played another memorable character struggling with motherhood in her breakthrough movie, Wild Rose). I also hope that by now Dakota Johnson has lived down her Fifty Shades baggage, which might have led some to unfairly dismiss her as an actress; she gives another strong performance here, with a mix of languor, fragility and desperation.
P.S. I haven’t been watching many films lately, in between two weeks of Australian Open followed almost immediately by two weeks of figure skating (I was dimly aware of other Winter Olympics sports happening, but who has time when you can stream three hours of figure skating instead).