The Lost Daughter ★★★ ½
(MA15+) 122 minutes, Netflix, from December 31
The Lost Daughter is based on a novel by the Italian writer known as Elena Ferrante, whose identity remains a closely guarded secret. The film is similarly mysterious, as it delves into one woman’s emotions about motherhood, children and her sensations of guilt. In the ’40s they would have called this a “woman’s picture” – but most of those were made by men.
This is the first feature of the wonderfully talented Maggie Gyllenhaal, and it has already appeared on a number of top 10 film lists from 2021. With a great central performance from Olivia Colman, it has depth, intelligence and a powerful seriousness of purpose. It’s also unfailingly grim, which raises questions about how we respond, as an audience.
Dakota Johnson, left, and Olivia Colman explore motherhood and guilt in The Lost Daughter.Credit:Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix
Colman, as Leda Caruso, collapses on a deserted beach on a Greek Island in the opening scene. The rest of the film takes us through how she got there – her arrival for a holiday in a comfortable private villa; her discomfort at the intrusion on the beach of a large and crass Greek American family; her fascination with one of the young women of the family, the beautiful, haunted-looking Nina (Dakota Johnson); the drama that follows when Nina’s brattish daughter loses her favourite doll.
Leda is not a pleasant person, as she freely admits to Ed Harris, playing a long-time island resident. She’s bitter, mean, secretive and superior. She’s a professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggesting she teaches at Harvard or MIT. She has two daughters of her own. Much of the film shows her struggles with those daughters when they were little. Jessie Buckley plays the younger, Leda, a free-spirited young mother, wife and scholar; her performance has more warmth, necessarily. She is playing the woman before the wounds.
Why then did the film strike me as falling a tad short of its ambitions? It may simply be that those ambitions are so high. Gyllenhaal clearly loves the novel; she wants to do it justice, but there is danger in adapting a great novel.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that great novels are unfilmable; better to film a lesser novel more freely, he contended. The two forms have fed off each other for a century but they have fundamentally different rhythms. Novelists can take their time but a film adaptation that adopts those rhythms often dies in a ditch. Ferrante’s novel is about a woman’s state of mind. The plot, aka the action, is minimal. That can work, but it’s a high bar.
Gyllenhaal works hard – perhaps too hard – to reflect that literary quality. She keeps Leda’s feelings unknowable – allowing Colman to develop her slow burning disintegration on screen. That means we must labour for long stretches without much illumination. Gyllenhaal does reward that patience with a cracking finale, but by then some will have given up. It’s hard to maintain sympathy for a woman so deeply closed, even when she’s played by two great actors. There is a long and honourable tradition of films that do this, challenging our expectations and daring us to judge, but it’s a knife-edge for a director.
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