The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter: at the heart of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s psychodrama is the battle between good and evil

Posted by for Film

The Lost Daughter is coming to Netflix on Friday 31 December and is one of the most captivating movies of the year, one Stylist writer contends.

There’s nothing quite as disappointing as an overly hyped-up film that doesn’t live up to expectations. Before watching The Lost Daughter, I was very aware of the accolades that had been bestowed upon it.

The movie, which is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut and an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, was met with a four-minute standing ovation when it premiered at Venice Film Festival. It has also achieved a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is crammed full of excellent, female acting talent.

It’s fair to say, without overuse of the term, that The Lost Daughter has generated quite the ‘buzz’ around it, and I can honestly say it’s deserving of it all.

On the face of it, it’s a film concerned with motherhood and all of its gritty facets – something that may not immediately grab the attention of every viewer. Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s better described as a demonstration of what the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actually mean. 

Can someone be wholly bad or good? Does our understanding of these ideas change with context? Is being either really just innate or can we change? Upon watching The Lost Daughter, these questions will soon monopolise your thinking.

We follow Leda, played by the ever-excellent Olivia Colman, who is a professor on a Greek summer holiday. It starts off as any idyllic beach getaway spent in perfect solitude should: settling into her villa, eating ice cream on a sun lounger and losing herself in reading. That all quickly turns to a less-than-desirable situation, though, once Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her family descend.

Loud, high-pitched and brash, Nina’s family can’t be ignored but Leda’s initial annoyance of the young mother’s brood quickly becomes a growing obsession. They are also our first example of ‘badness’ within the film: they’re rude to Leda and we later learn that they’re “bad people,” according to summer worker Will, played by Normal People’s Paul Mescal.

Although she is our protagonist, we learn about Leda slowly through a series of flashbacks. A young and busy academic, Jessie Buckley (The Courier) shines in the role as a young Leda. She’s rushed off her feet, juggling work commitments and two young daughters.

The flashbacks are tense to watch and Buckley is nearly always at the point of snapping – that’s how preoccupied she seems. She shouts at her daughters, even breaks a glass door, but makes up for it with hugs, kisses and homecooked meals. The bad is often outweighed with the good here and The Lost Daughter does a brilliant job of placing this binary thinking onto the subject matter at hand: motherhood. 

The Lost Daughter
Dakota Johnson and Olivia Colman star as Nina and Leda in The Lost Daughter.

What makes a good mother? What makes a bad mother? Is there even such a thing as either? It’s a testament to Gyllenhaal’s writing that the film will have you contemplating it all.

Talking to Will, we learn of Leda’s own marred perception of motherhood. She plainly mentions the idea of daughters “sucking something away” from their mothers. Throughout the course of the film, we soon realise that much of Leda’s present-day dialogue revolves around her own mother or daughters.

She tries to call her daughters while on holiday, and on picking up, they’re not able to speak for long. We think it demonstrates a modern-day selfishness when, in fact, it points at deeper family dynamics that are not immediately noticeable.

As Leda becomes attuned to the secrets and lies of Nina’s family, she too starts to remember the tumultuousness of her own past. We learn of her past affair; one of the catalysts for stepping away from her family in order to pursue her academic career further. She didn’t see her daughters for three years and admits: “It felt amazing.” 

The Lost Daughter
Jessie Buckley stars as young Leda in The Lost Daughter.

There’s an idea that trickles throughout this beautifully-shot film and it’s something that will likely resonate with many who watch it: what do we do out of obligation and what do we do because it’s truly what we want?

Leda describes herself as an “unnatural mother”, and there was an expected obligation to be perfect in all the ways that society tells us that mothers should be. But actually, her desires were wrapped up in wanting to pursue her own career and romances further. The Lost Daughter shows that there is nothing wrong with that.

While you could view Leda as the older, wiser mother figure within the movie, she is actually closer in character to Nina than initially thought.

Throughout, you get the eerie sense that something is building and soon realise that the uneasiness you feel is because you never really know what Leda will say, feel or do next. Her demure façade is quickly revealed: she steals Nina’s daughter’s doll, goes to great lengths to hide it, dances unashamedly in public and even tries to flirt with Will by asking him to dinner.  

Perhaps then, the strength of this psychological drama is actually its proximity to regular life and its reflections on motherhood, love and the past.

One thing’s for certain though – it’s nothing short of a stellar piece of cinema. And that eerie feel you get from watching it? That will certainly remain with you for some time after watching, I assure you. 

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Netflix

Share this article