The Lost Daughter (2021)

Maggie Gyllenhaal | 2hr 4min

The decades that Maggie Gyllenhaal has spent watching and learning from directors on film sets has paid off – The Lost Daughter is one of the more outstanding directorial debuts of 2021, delivering an entirely unsettling take on motherhood that has no inhibitions in peeling back the sensitive and at times ugly layers of what it means to lose yourself in such an overwhelming duty of care. Olivia Colman is in the lead role here as Leda, a woman whose beach holiday in Greece starts to quietly derail after meeting young mother Nina and her small family. The psychological drama that unravels from here is almost entirely internal, depicted in flashbacks that reveal Leda’s own fraught history as a mother of two young girls, and yet there is an anxiety which seems to arise in her immediate environment as well.

A magnificent performance from Olivia Colman capturing every complex layer of Leda’s identity. She is unpredictable, flirting with strangers before running off in shame, reaching out to her past while trying to run from it.

Part of this troubled atmosphere can be put down to Leda’s paranoid, erratic behaviour, particularly in her strange decision to steal the doll of Elena, Nina’s child, which gives rise to symbolic suggestions of wishful surrogacy. But then there are those falling pinecones that always seem to target her along the same path home from the beach, and a group of troublesome local men who seem to be everywhere she goes. The uneasiness attached to these threats draw a very thin line between drama and thriller, as does the subtle suggestion that there may be some deeper truth to Leda’s past which she refuses to address. While meeting new people and answering basic personal questions, the hesitancy in Colman’s line deliveries suggests nervous dishonesty even when she is speaking the truth. In actuality, it is what she leaves unsaid that conceals the explanations we are looking for.

The crafting of such persistent ambiguity and disorientation is the basis of Gyllenhaal’s filmmaking strengths here, as in the formal repetition of flashbacks and motifs she builds a character who feels both immediately accessible in her mental state, and yet mysteriously distant in her unsympathetic behaviour. Names are awkwardly misheard and mistaken more than once, and a rhyming couplet that continues to reappear in Leda’s flashbacks with her children brings both an eerie metaphoric significance and a sweet innocence to her fondest memories.

“Don’t let it break, peel it like a snake.”

An uneasy relationship with the locals and holidaymakers around her.

Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal takes a step into Terrence Malick territory with the creative choice to let conversations run over shots from elsewhere within the same scene where the characters aren’t speaking, sinking us deeper into Leda’s distracted mental state. Seemingly the only thing that she can focus on completely without disturbance is Nina, within whom she sees a version of her younger self. There is certainly empathy in the complex relationship that develops between them, as Leda notices Nina’s troubles with motherhood and her desire to break free of its constraints, but there is also a little bit of jealousy over her still-intact family. Nina has not yet made the same choices as Leda, but it may only be a matter of time before she too finds herself separated from her children.

Elena’s doll an object of obsession for Leda, and full of symbolism informing her emotional journey.

The film title’s description of a daughter as “lost” may on the surface imply some kind of missing persons narrative, but Gyllenhaal is clearly more interested in where those lost people actually go. Indeed, many things are lost in this film – multiple daughters, a doll, and most of all, Leda herself, who finds herself out of her depth wherever she goes. Back at home she finds herself struggling to raise her children, but then when she is away from them, they dominate her every thought. Certainly parenting isn’t something that everyone can weather, but even in her self-description of being an “unnatural mother” there is a recognition that her daughters are still very much part of her identity, regardless of her actual nurturing instincts. “Don’t let it break,” they continue to whisper to her all throughout the film, and it is within this mantra that Leda finds some hope of reconnection with kindness and understanding.

Gyllenhaal’s flashbacks often caught in close-ups, not always entirely clear.

The Lost Daughter is currently streaming on Netflix.

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