The Lost Daughter

Based on Elena Ferrante's book of the same name, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, depicts the horror of a woman ageing past what society deems desirable

Film Review by Anahit Behrooz | 03 Sep 2021
  • The Lost Daughter, Olivia Colman
Film title: The Lost Daughter
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Starring: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Paul Mescal, Jack Farthing, Peter Sarsgaard

The figure of the unnatural mother broods unsettlingly over the Western cultural imagination. She is Medea, tearing her children into bloody pieces to wreak vengeance on her husband. She is the unnamed narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, gazing at her newborn in bewilderment before entombing herself in her bedroom. And now she is Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), the protagonist of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, whose solo holiday in Greece unravels when a large, neighbouring family of mothers and children brings back haunted memories of her own motherhood.

The Lost Daughter is based on the Elena Ferrante book of the same name and it translates Ferrante’s trademark probing of womanhood’s ugly, wounded centre with shattering vitality. Gyllenhaal’s eye is extraordinarily perceptive, the camera almost indecently intimate in its attention to the unhappy puckers of Colman’s mouth, to the heady sensuality – hands pressed in underwear, creased bedsheets – of frustrated desire. Colman is unsurprisingly excellent, but Jessie Buckley as Leda’s younger self is mesmerising, punctuating the middle-aged Leda’s peace with ghostly keenness. Gyllenhaal’s fragmentary and unpredictable use of flashback devastates, as longing and regret collapse temporalities and undercurrents of decay break surface in the hot air.

Reminiscent of the sun-drenched entanglements of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine and Luca Gaudagnino’s remake A Bigger Splash (coincidentally also featuring an enigmatic turn from Dakota Johnson), The Lost Daughter’s most direct predecessor is perhaps Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated, which evokes with similar rawness the horror of ageing past desirability; the nightmare of realising that gendered expectations will never satisfy. Ultimately, there is nothing unnatural about any of it. “Will this pass?” Johnson’s Nina asks Leda. No, The Lost Daughter tell us, it never does.

The Lost Daughter is in cinemas now, and streaming on Netflix from 31 Dec
The film had its world premiere at Venice Film Festival; read more of our Venice coverage here