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Film

Olivia Colman Shines in 'The Lost Daughter', a Story of Maternal Guilt and Loss

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s assured debut tells its story well, becoming a bit obvious towards the end.

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Leda (Olivia Colman), a professor of comparative literature in Boston, is spending her summer vacation in Greece. She’s alone; the beach has just a few people. It feels like a long-deserved break. For the first 15 minutes, we know nearly nothing about her. Left on her own, Leda is a quiet presence: She’s calm, polite, and has a tender face just short of a smile. But she finds something on the beach that yanks her back to her old life, more than two decades ago: when Leda found herself trapped amid her incompatible versions, craved solitude yet couldn’t shut herself off, aced her PhD programme yet bungled a common exam – being a mother.

A young mother (Jessie Buckley). Leda was 23 when her first child, Bianca (Robyn Elwell), was born; Martha (Ellie Blake) came two years later. The past comes rushing back to her because she sees her old reflection in a young woman, Nina (Dakota Johnson): a harried mother and an unfettered wife. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, based on a novel by Elena Ferrante, examines a common resolve and a peculiar guilt – both related to each other – the desire to live on one’s own terms, the struggle to live for someone else.

It produces a disconcerting conflict of selves, eliciting disorienting questions: Can you – should you – choose personal identity over filial? What if motherly instincts don’t come naturally to a young woman – should she accept or should she fight, does it get better? What is worse: an uninterested mother or a dishonest mother? The Lost Daughter is a story of confounding yin-yang – duality spawning despair. There’s some hint of that in the visual language: the framing is more claustrophobic at the start of the film, the camera often close to Leda’s face and body, when she is relatively free and blissful. As her vacation becomes suffocating, the camera recedes.

Such contrasts, even otherwise, are hardcoded into the film’s essence. Leda’s bliss is ruptured on a balmy beach – a place where she can’t find literal or figurative tranquillity. Her life begins to unravel as a PhD student and a young mother: someone in pursuit of questions yet expected to provide answers. Even in the present, she’s torn apart by her past: a period that has indeed not passed, thrusting memories that simmer and boil and burn. It’s never easy for a film to absorb so much yet not drown under its own weight. But The Lost Daughter manages to keep a calm head at most times – even while tackling and posing uncomfortable questions.

Written by Gyllenhaal, the drama switches between the present and past with smooth felicity. The more inscrutable Leda seems in the present – crunching into near tears all of a sudden, filching a kid’s doll, getting preternaturally involved in Nina’s life – the more her past contextualises her grief, a latent state she understands yet can’t process.

Two stunning peformances

The movie is built on two stunning performances, by Colman and Buckley. Going through a current dream run – with astounding turns in The Favourite (2018) and The Father (2020) – Colman is the film’s spine and soul. Great actors crave a character like Leda: someone shunning definitions, evading labels, squashing expectations. Her inchoate conundrums mark and elevate the film, at levels both narrative (does she know what she desires? Would that knowledge help?) and thematic (what are the expectations from a good mother? How can an “unnatural mother” become who she never was?). On Colman’s hard face, indecision is poetry, her search for solace a curious mathematical puzzle.

But a relatively young actress, Buckley, is superb, too. Fragile and disoriented – wearing a distinct soft face – who looks more of a daughter than a mother, Buckley’s young Leda gives this film a significant emotional anchor. Her role is sharper than Colman’s – her confusions, sorrows, and exasperations drawn with hard lines and edges – making it a unique origin story of an absentee mother. These performances are matched and cut with poetic precision and terrifying detail. In Buckley, we get a hot flame in a wind, in Colman we see a fading wick in an air-sealed room.

A movie centred on a student and a professor of literature, The Lost Daughter revels in some literal poetry via overt and subtle hints. The obvious one is a W.B. Yeats sonnet, Leda and the Swan, based on famous Greek mythology, depicting immediate and future destruction (Leda’s dignity and the Trojan war). It’s the kind of name that compels us to wonder about the (probably bleak) relationship between Leda and her own mother. It finds further echoes in Leda’s relationship with Bianca who presumably knows the source of her mother’s trauma. A more subtle hint is a poem by W.H. Auden (a huge admirer of Yeats), Crisis, portending a more modern destruction (the Nazi invasion). At one point, the young Leda, working on Yeats’ translation, tells a visitor that she taught Crisis to her children as an “inside joke”. It feels like an inside joke between her and the audience – an atypical mother bonding with her kids on a grim poem.

The Lost Daughter has enough allusions and sly stories – complemented by perception-shifting characters teasing our expectations – so it feels disappointing when the drama turns literal in lieu of literary. The framing device is clever – Leda getting triggered after watching a young mother and her daughter on the beach – and it does impressive heavy lifting for the most part, diving into her past and poking her despairs, but it gets a bit too obvious towards the latter half. Even when we get the overarching similarities between Leda and Nina, the story continues to match them further – the infidelity, the burdens of a young mother, the resolution of the ‘doll’ subplot – turning vague sadness into a tight-fisted mathematical model.

These imperfections jar even more because they’re trying to smoothen out a story, to make it almost… ‘perfect’. Yet when the film gets over what remains with us is an exasperating circularity. No new beginnings here, no new ends, either. Leda couldn’t escape then; she can’t escape now. Her daughters, now in their early twenties, are still around, reminding her that the cycle of suppressed traumas and obvious confusions and impossible resolutions will continue. Leda should have known, for she herself once told Nina that, “It doesn’t get better.”