Venice 2021 review: The Lost Daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

“The Lost Daughter makes for an uncomfortable watch, but it is all the better for it.”

Having children is the most rewarding thing that can happen to you.” That’s what they say anyway. But for some parents, especially women since they often have to carry the largest burden when it comes to raising their offspring, having children is not what they expected, or even hoped for. Just like for women who do not want to have children at all, these feelings that are similar to postpartum depression can last for years. These are taboo subjects in society, where the expectation is that at some point you have children and love them, so for Maggie Gyllenhaal to choose this as the subject for her directorial debut is a daring move. Gyllenhaal isn’t exactly known for playing it safe as an actress either. From her role with a job description not applicable to most offices in Secretary, to a teacher who tries to kidnap a child prodigy to deal with the dissatisfaction about her own life in The Kindergarten Teacher, Gyllenhaal hasn’t shied away from playing complex women with a rough edge here or there. In short, real women, not the fantasy version Hollywood usually conjures up when portraying a woman with power. It is no surprise then that for The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal chose to adapt Italian (pseudonymous) writer Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name for her first foray into directing. The protagonist, British professor Leda, is a powerful woman in her own right, with a respected position in society and a willfulness that betrays her affable appearance when it needs to. And she holds a secret.

Leda (alternately played by Olivia Colman in the present and Jessie Buckley in flashbacks, and both in excellent form) is a professor of comparative Italian literature who has decided to go on a work-vacation in the Greek isles. Renting a house from the friendly but pushy Lyle (Ed Harris), she spends her days on the beach working and relaxing. It isn’t long before she gets intrigued by a mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson in her best role to date), and her young daughter. When Nina’s extended family arrives on the island, including Nina’s dominating husband Will (Paul Mescal), Leda starts to recognize something in Nina, prompting memories of her own years as a young mother of two daughters. In her memories, she lives a fulfilling life until the girls are born. Increasingly the young Leda feels trapped in an existence she doesn’t want, with a troubled relationship with her daughters. A fling with a charming professor (Peter Sarsgaard) is an escape. In the present, these memories start to unravel Leda as she increasingly works her way into the life of Nina and her daughter.

The Lost Daughter makes for an uncomfortable watch, but it is all the better for it. In part it’s the subject matter, with Colman and Buckley’s character uncompromising and the screenplay allowing for situations in which Leda is unreasonable, awkward, or downright rude. Just like we can all be at times. In other words, a fully rounded, realistic character that is not the likeable protagonist all the time. Her relationship with Nina is a tad creepy, although her interest seems to come from a good place. She recognizes something in Nina and seems to want to protect her, or maybe act as a mother figure to her, having had a tumultuous relationship with her own daughters, but she tackles it in all the wrong ways. Gyllenhaal intensifies the feeling of awkwardness and irritation by keeping the ever-moving camera close to the skin, often uncomfortably so. The Lost Daughter needs this energy to completely work, and it does take an effort to get on the film’s wavelength, but once it clicks and Gyllenhaal’s intentions are clear it becomes a grating but satisfying plunge into a rich and complex character.

Part of what makes Leda such a strong character are the performances by Colman and Buckley, both in top form. The latter’s ennui and despair at the way her life is shaping up is palpable, and Buckley gives a career-best performance. Always an actress to watch, she finally delivers on her promise as a young woman in a depression asking herself “Is this all?” especially with regards to her children. Colman is fantastic as always, a powder keg of withheld emotions that can explode at any time, and nobody can play awkward better than this British actress who has been at the top of her game for the last decade or so. Complemented by Dakota Johnson’s Nina who oscillates between strong woman on her own, yet meek and frustrated around her dominating husband and family, The Lost Daughter excels in its writing of three fully believable women. Gyllenhaal’s vision is clear in her direction (and probably also in her choice of subject) and she delivers a powerful debut that makes one hungry for more. The comparison with the work of John Cassavetes is perhaps not very original (seemingly this is on everyone’s mind), but The Lost Daughter does hark back to the powerful character dramas of the ’70s of which Cassavetes was an exponent. Despite what studios seem to think, there is a place and a market for this type of film because people crave stories with identifiable characters and complex drama they can recognize from their own lives.