The Lost Daughter explores the dark side of motherhood with a risky drama that feels closer to a thriller

Maggie Gyllenhaal skilfully teases out themes of selfishness, solitude and the malaise of motherhood in her alluring adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel.

Olivia Colman as Leda in The Lost Daughter (2021)
Olivia Colman as Leda in The Lost Daughter (2021)Courtesy of Netflix

The Lost Daughter is in UK cinemas from December 17, and will be available to stream on Netflix from December 31. 

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is – as might be expected – a seductively actorly film. The Lost Daughter invites us to revel in the texture of its performances. As Gyllenhaal’s three leads, Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley and Dakota Johnson emote delicately, in scenes that refuse to race to a conclusion, cinematographer Hélène Louvart frames their beautiful faces tightly, almost alarmingly close to the lens. It’s a drama of suffocating intensity, and these heightened emotions will demand a release.

It’s also, as you might expect from Gyllenhaal’s previous producer credit on The Kindergarten Teacher (2018), a risky drama, one that often feels more like a thriller. The Lost Daughter, against its gorgeous Greek island backdrop, twists the tenderest nerves in the lives of women disillusioned with marriage, motherhood and the bounds of good behaviour. As sharp as a hatpin, Gyllenhaal’s film raises the notion, almost as easily weaponised, of endorsing the unthinkable: female selfishness.

The Lost Daughter explores what happens when women say no, to the “crushing responsibility” (as Colman’s character puts it) of childcare, to monogamy, even to the request to move a few feet along a beach to make room for another party. It’s a faithful but not rote adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name, and Gyllenhaal’s deft screenplay has already been recognised at Venice, where the film premiered.

Colman plays Leda, the woman who refuses to give up her lounger in the sun. In this telling she’s not Italian but a Yorkshirewoman, a professor at a prestigious American university, working on poetry in translation. Her research and her frequent, often scatty allusions to literature emphasise that she’s more than capable of interpreting the symbolism that litters her holiday: a bowl of glossy fruit, rotten on the underside, the soggy, stained knickers of a child’s doll. The kernel of this cleverly troubling film is the gruesome reality beneath surface prettiness.

Dakota Johnson as Nina in The Lost Daughter (2021)
Dakota Johnson as Nina in The Lost Daughter (2021)Courtesy of Netflix

Divorced and with grown-up children living away, Leda is forced by her trip to Greece to confront her precious solitude. She clearly enjoys her alone time, singing along to Talking Heads on her car stereo, and rejecting the advances of even Ed Harris’s friendly and handsome handyman Lyle. He’s a fellow divorcee, estranged from his family while he dwells in this Greek paradise, a respite from paternal responsibility and rewards. Her plans to read in peace are undermined by the arrival of an extended family from Queens, New York. Their loud voices, flashy swimming costumes and air of menace unsettle Leda. And yet she refuses to make way for them.

In flashbacks, shot yet more intimately than the Greek scenes, with shallow focus and handheld cameras, Leda as a young mother is played by Jessie Buckley (Yorkshire accent as flat as her energy), overburdened by the demands of young daughters and struggling to maintain her academic career. An encounter with a free-spirited hitchhiker (a winsome Alba Rohrwacher) who praises her Italian widens her horizons. Then a trip to a conference is an escape, where a citation from a rock-star academic (Peter Sarsgaard) becomes a heady aphrodisiac, and a moment of madness becomes three years of scandalous liberation.

Colman’s Leda the older bears the knowledge that she was once capable of abandoning her own children as a mark of both guilt and pride. In Greece, she reclaims her youthful boldness, even childishness, wolfing down a Cornetto with sticky fingers and furtively stealing a child’s doll. The latter act seems inexplicably cruel, but may be grounded in her own bruising experiences of early motherhood. At a party she grooves to ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ in a scarlet dress, before being whisked away from the dance floor for her own safety.

Dakota Johnson plays Nina, the most blithely attractive of the New Yorkers, pushed around by her lean, aggressive husband, and mithered by her toddler Elena. The best of the film is given over to the growing understanding between Nina and Leda, a doleful exchange of glances, and the recognition that they share the same discomfort, depression, dissatisfaction? Nina doesn’t know how to name her feelings, but we easily recall that the young Leda taught her girls to memorise the Italian text of W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Crisis’ (also known as ‘They’). Will, the young Irish beach attendant who befriends Leda, is too delicate to tell her exactly how dangerous Nina’s family really are. All he will say is that they are “bad people”. The trouble is, as this excellent film makes clear, most of us are.