The actor-turned-director makes quite the impression with a messy but highly atmospheric adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel
When dutiful housewife Nora Helmer decided to leave her husband and two young children at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House, enraged censors demanded that Ibsen write a new ending. She was dubbed a “peculiar, eccentric woman” for deciding that it was time, for the first time, to put her own happiness first.
More than 140 years later, women are still deemed as unfeeling or even sociopathic when motherhood doesn’t come to them naturally. In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s jittery directorial debut The Lost Daughter, Leda Caruso – played in her twenties by Jessie Buckley and in her forties by Olivia Colman – has heartbreakingly inherited and internalised this misogyny, isolating her away from her loved ones.
In the present day, Leda is an anxious academic hiding behind the brittle facade of a spinster, alone in Greece for a working holiday. She just can’t relax: the fruit bowl in her rental is maggoty, a lighthouse won’t stop blaring, and rowdy locals are ruining her quest for peace. Things take an Ozon-like turn when the young, sexy Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her toddler begin to turn up to the same beach as Leda every day, their loud and uncouth extended family in tow. When a doll goes missing leaving a child heartbroken, Leda gets involved in the search while trying to push down the traumatic memories of her past.
Considering this is a debut, albeit from a Hollywood stalwart, the cast is stacked with stars: Paul Mescal in a rather nothingy role, Peter Sarsgaard as an academic slimeball, Ed Harris as a kindly, wrinkled expat. But as is the case in almost every project she’s in, the star of the show is Jessie Buckley. What a brilliant actor she is, a chameleonic presence able to beguile then revile the audience with the slightest facial twitch. In her scenes, we get to see how Leda began to see motherhood as a battle she could never win, constantly expected to sideline her career and subdue her short temper.
While Olivia Colman is also great, and arguably gets the “juicier” scenes, her occasional dip into typical Colman-isms take us out of the story at times. The older Leda’s characterisation of what the internet would call a “Karen” raises the question: do middle-aged women become bitter and mean when they’ve spent decades being shackled by misogyny? The film has no qualms about making Leda unlikeable, and unlikeable she is, needing to be bombarded with polite probing before slightly dropping her frosty mask. Masking her inner discomfort with clipped distance, the character stands as a perfect depiction of anxiety.
The Lost Daughter is a messy and ambitious film, not at all typical for a debut. But while it’s full of gusto, the by-the-numbers plot inherited from the 2008 Elena Ferrante novel of the same name makes it feel closer to prestige TV than a cinematic sucker punch. Its saving grace in this regard comes from DP Hélène Louvart, who adds a sense of elevation and grandeur to the on-screen performances. Meanwhile, Dickon Hinchliffe’s suave score warms things up considerably, as if the fiery chemistry between Buckley and Sarsgaard needed any assistance.
Like the beach Leda frequents, The Lost Daughter offers up an unsettling aura to languish in and plenty of characters to try and decode. All things considered, the film’s overall lumpiness can certainly be forgiven, and for a first feature, it’s a foreboding triumph.
The Lost Daughter was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2021. It it released in UK cinemas on 17 December.Where to watch