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The Lost Daughter

Released 2021. Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

FACING WHAT FEELS LIKE AN IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION, A WOMAN makes a choice that will define what she makes of herself. Motherhood – that’s what we’re talking about. To Leda, the joy of being a mother also comes at a price. She feels trapped by the constant pressures and expectations as her personal aspirations and career path are being derailed. So she chooses one over the other.

The Lost Daughter is about a woman’s past returning to haunt her conscience. It’s ruminative, candid and throws up some bristly questions about gender and parenthood.

Leda is a literature professor taking a working holiday on a beach somewhere in Greece. Her peaceful days of lazing on a deck chair reading and gazing at the sea are disrupted with the arrival of a family who are by turns loud, intrusive and hostile. Somehow in the midst of this bustle and distraction Leda finds her attention locked on a young mother Nina and her child Elena.

Leda sees how Nina appears harried and tired as a young mother. In the raucous family gathering Nina seems to wish to steal a moment of reprieve that’s always fleeting.

One day, while Nina’s back is turned, Elena disappears. The frantic family runs off in all directions screaming her name. Leda goes off on her own and through pure luck, locates the girl playing by herself in a secluded spot and brings her back to the worried family.

What Leda fails to return is Elena’s doll, which Leda has decided to keep for herself. She cleans it, hides it in a kitchen cupboard and even buys doll costume to dress it.

Leda’s fixation on Nina gradually becomes clearer to us as Leda’s recollection brings us back to her past. In flashbacks we see Leda, some 20 years before, juggling a demanding family life with two young daughters with being an aspirant academic. What we see from Leda’s memory suggests her husband doesn’t put in equal share of home duties. The day-to-day balancing act of an exhaustive parent is a reflection of the societal expectation placed in particular on mothers to live up to the role of the perfect and nurturing life-giver.

Leda telling Nina in a serious tone that “children are a crushing responsibility” is certainly not the most encouraging small talk with a young mother you've just met, and in the company of another woman who's heavily pregnant. Even though Leda has returned to her family and reconciled with her daughters after three years, seeing Nina as a young mother at this time, two decades later, sparks something deep inside Leda she can’t put out. Is it regret, a chance at atonement, or a need to understand and dispense some advice? There’s a bit of all these and more in Leda’s mixed emotions.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut (she also adapted the script from Elena Ferrante’s novel) puts a lot of trust in the audience to work through the complex emotional landscape to sympathise with Leda. This mature study of a woman’s past and present is a remarkable effort of subtlety and nuance rich in angst and anxiety.

The three central female characters are superbly realised, from Dakota Johnson’s Nina feeling intrigue, trust, finally loathing at Leda, Jessie Buckley’s blend of happiness and weariness as a younger Leda, and Olivia Colman, whose portrayal of Leda is layered and almost enigmatic, by turns cynical, aloof, talkative, awkward, insensitive, kind, a woman at odds with herself. Does she consider herself a bad mother? When she confides in Nina, Leda says she “abandoned” her daughters, with tears in her eyes.

Leda is an inconsistent person who can be gracious, kind, terse and shockingly direct. She’s also incredibly selfish and would rather see a child in distress for days while she blithely lies about a missing toy. Yet we feel a sense of empathy for this woman, even as she agrees to facilitate an extra-marital affair between Nina and Will, the errand boy at the resort, even as her attraction for a professor is clearly beyond academic. The reason is because The Lost Daughter deals with much more than a woman’s experience of motherhood but the nature of being human – flawed, honest, insecure, warm, cautious and rife with contradictions.


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