The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is an incomparable triumph
While some may scoff at the idea of actors jumping into the director’s chair, seeing a mixture of nepotism and self-indulgence, performers can sometimes make the best choices for helming a film. By being so in touch with exposing one’s body and emotional vulnerabilities in front of the camera, you’re much more tuned to how to convey a narrative visually. In turn, you’re able to navigate and lead your actors in an empathetic way, knowing how much to push them. The newest delightful jump from in front of the screen to the director’s chair comes from Maggie Gyllenhaal and her adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel The Lost Daughter (2021).
The Lost Daughter follows college professor Leda (Olivia Colman) who is vacationing on a Greek island by herself. On the island, Leda bumps into a loud American family, and specifically takes to young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter Elena (Athena Martin Anderson). This brings forth a retrospection of Leda’s own past with her daughters, where we see her younger self (Jesse Buckley) struggle with the burdens and pressures of motherhood.
This is not Gyllenhaal’s first time in the director’s chair, having helmed a few episodes of the critically underseen The Deuce (2017-2019). However, the leap that Gyllenhaal takes in terms of style and adaptation is the boldest I’ve seen from a filmmaker yet. Not only does Gyllenhaal take on the more difficult and potentially alienating non-verbal tone of European cinema, but she also delves into a rather taboo subject. Ferrante should herself be applauded for shining a light into the plights and guilt that come with motherhood.
The Lost Daughter looks at the unglamorized and sometimes shocking effects of having children. The incessant crying, the physical demands, and the oppressive need of constant attention are aspects that are scarcely mentioned in parenting conversations, and when they are, are portrayed as a joke. The toll that this takes on mothers especially, is a crushing and cruel one that leads to an inevitable depression. For Gyllenhaal and Ferrante to break with the fairytale portrayal of parenthood is admirable and necessary for discourse around the subject. While parenting can have many incredibly satisfying moments, it is just as important to talk about the negative and weighty impacts as well; sweeping them under the rug is only going to make them fester.
Gyllenhaal makes a masterful adaptation. She is incredibly patient in letting viewers slowly wade into the story and characters. This might turn off the impatient, and yet, just like a good steak, the slow burn pays off with an engulfing immersion into Leda’s plights and emotions. By lowering us calmly into Leda’s background, we become attached to her anxieties and guilt by the time we learn of her conflicted past. This helps create not only an empathy with the character, but an encouragement of her actions as well. On paper, Leda’s actions would lead many mediocre directors to portray her as a selfish villain, in Gyllenhaal’s hands, Leda is a tragic hero. There is much to be said about the subtleties of the female experience that Gyllenhaal litters here and there, from a secret sense of camaraderie to the understated misogyny that sneakily takes its toll. This is a further complexity and observation that makes The Lost Daughter become such a multidimensional piece.
Gyllenhaal shows an adept hand at crafting the visual aesthetic of the film. She expertly uses her close-ups to an extreme so that viewers feel as disoriented and uncomfortable as the berated mother being filmed. The lazy atmosphere of the Greek summer is also installed with an admirable patience and restraint, which clashes wonderfully with Leda’s tempestuous inner journey.
Gyllenhaal best shines, however, in her handling of her actors. She’s granted an incredible cast with Colman at the helm. Colman, already an expert at playing emotionally corked characters after The Crown (2016-), is spectacular to watch as she slowly peels away her layers of vulnerability; unabashedly letting viewers into an imperfect, suffering character. It is in Leda’s desperation to be accepted as imperfect, that the film crucially revolves. This leads to the wider question of why women are scolded for their imperfections, while men are triumphed as “complex heroes?” Colman’s tour-de-force performance is informed by Buckley’s as her younger self, who encapsulates the impatience and imminent explosion inside young Leda with a contagious distress. Sprinkled throughout are subversive presences from the likes of Ed Harris and Johnson, who do well to add depth to their characters, without needing to steal the spotlight.
In the end, The Lost Daughter is not only a spectacular cinematic directorial debut for Gyllenhaal, but an incomparable film that dives into a taboo subject with shameless bravery. An expert crafting ranging from the visuals to the sound, production design, and the breathtaking performances make The Lost Daughter one of the year’s most outstanding films.