‘The Lost Daughter’ movie review: Olivia Colman revels in haunting tale of motherhood

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel, is a wonderfully thought-provoking start to the New Year

Elena Ferrante’s slim, (144 pages) 2008 novel is vividly brought to life by Maggie Gyllenhaal in her directorial debut. 48-year-old academic Leda (Olivia Colman) decides to go on a vacation to Greece after her daughters leave to join their father and her ex-husband, Joe (Jack Farthing).

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While initially enjoying her freedom and the gentle attentions of the caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris), Leda soon gets increasingly embroiled in a boisterous Neapolitan family, particularly a young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her three-year-old daughter Elena (Athena Martin). Watching the mother and daughter, Leda is reminded of her own struggles as a student and mother to her young daughters, Bianca (Robyn Elwell) and Marta (Ellie Blake), while Joe, also an academic, was mainly absent on work.

Everything that happens to Nina triggers memories for Leda. When Elena is lost and the entire beach is co-opted into looking for her, a young Leda (Jessie Buckley) remembers losing Bianca and looking desperately for her with Marta at her hip. Nina’s attraction to Will (Paul Mescal) the resort assistant, reminds Leda of her affair with the erudite Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard). Nina playing with Elena reminds her of “making a snake” of the orange peel for Bianca and Marta.

The Lost Daughter

  • Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Cast: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Domińczyk, Jack Farthing, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris
  • Storyline: A restful beach holiday turns out to be anything but for a middle-aged professor, who confronts past demons
  • Duration: 121 minutes

The doll that Elena loses, Nani, plays an important role in this story of mothers, daughters and mothering. Nani reminds Leda of her doll Mina or Mini-Mama as her mother called it. The worm and the dirty sea water that comes out of the doll echoes Leda’s ambiguous thoughts on motherhood. Leda feels that her beautiful mother in giving birth to her, expelled the worst parts of her, and feels pity for the “poor creatures” that came out of her belly. The Lost Daughter in the title is layered. Who is the lost daughter;Elena, Nina, Bianca, Marta or Leda?

One can see the beginnings of Ferrante’s incredible Neapolitan quartet, which has been adapted into My Brilliant Friend by HBO and available on Voot, in The Lost Daughter. In Nina, one can see the kernel of Lila as well as Nino in Will, and Stephano in the vaguely threatening Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Nina’s husband.

The Golden Osella Award for Best Screenplay at the Venice International Film Festival, where the film premiered, for Gyllenhaal was well-deserved. She has given form to Ferrante’s words be it “a mother is only a daughter who plays”, Leda’s exasperated “I am a person not a function”, or the “domineering cordiality” of the Neapolitans.

Gyllenhaal proves the universality of Ferrante’s work by moving the action from Italy to Greece and basing Leda in New York instead of Florence. Inverting Leda’s translation studies from Italian to English from the book underlines the fluidity of lived experiences, while Leda working on translating WB Yeats into Italian, which as a character comments is like “chocolate on chocolate”, echoes the terrible beauty of Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan’. Apart from Yeats, there is also WH Auden and the chill of the crooked wing for literature junkies to luxuriate on.

A beautiful-looking film and brilliantly acted (one cannot take one’s eyes off Coleman), The Lost Daughter is a wonderfully thought-provoking start to the New Year.

The Lost Daughter is currently streaming on Netflix


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