The Lost Daughter starring Olivia Coleman, Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley premiered on Netflix last month. The film, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut, follows a college professor, Leda (Olivia Coleman), on her holiday to a Greek Island, who becomes obsessed with a young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter Elena, as well as their boisterous and domineering family. Accompanied by a soundtrack of discordant jazz and the odd 80s tune, the picturesque setting, and shots of characters staring at other holidaymakers for just too long, there is an unsettled atmosphere throughout. The house Leda is staying in is very white and clinical, with constant blinding light rotating through the rooms from the lighthouse nearby. This, alongside the falling pinecones on the tree-lined path to the beach, and the basket of rotten fruit all contribute to the uneasy and overbearing ambience, leaving viewers feeling as though they can’t quite relax while watching.
As we watch Leda observing the parenting techniques of Nina, then critiqued by her sister-in-law Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), we gather glimpses of Leda’s relationship with her own daughters through flashbacks starring Jessie Buckley as a younger Leda, balancing her career as an academic with being a young mum to two daughters, Bianca, and Marta. I’m not a mother myself, but Buckley’s portrayal of a woman truly on the edge feels like a very accurate portrayal of raising young children. We learn that Leda had an affair with another academic before divorcing her husband and leaving her children for three years.
Nina and Leda become close after Leda helps to find Elena when she goes missing from the beach. Nina repeatedly confesses to Leda that she is struggling with Elena, and the regular absences of her husband and Elena’s father Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) are contributing to her distress. Johnson’s role is unlike anything else I have seen her star in before. Her portrayal of Nina being pushed to her limit is, in my opinion, her best performance to date.
Over the course of the film, we meet various male characters who have themselves left young families behind them. First the pair of hikers who young Leda and her husband Joe (Jack Farthing) invite to stay with them for a night, and later, Lyle (Ed Harris), the caretaker of Leda’s holiday home on the island. Both talk about leaving young children and their spouses behind, with a sense of regret. Lyle in particular expresses his sadness at missing his children and grandchildren growing up. The film’s inclusion of fathers who left young children highlights the different societal attitudes towards mothers and fathers. The hiker declares he has never been happier having left them and has found a new partner who doesn’t seem, to the audience at least, to judge him for having abandoned a young family. However, when Leda confesses to Nina that she left her young girls and that it felt amazing to do so until she missed them, an air of judgement crosses Nina’s face. As a society we condemn both mothers and fathers who walk out on their families, but we are particularly judgemental of absent mothers.
While I can guess that many parents question leaving their family during their darkest, most challenging hours, to actually do so is something else entirely. I think the regret that Leda harboured in leaving her daughters is illustrated by her taking Elena’s doll and looking after it as if it were her own toy. This theft leads to the climax of the film, when Leda returns the doll to Nina, who then tells Leda to stay away from her family and to watch her back before stabbing her with a hatpin Leda had bought for her during a trip to the market. The Lost Daughter is a must-see film; a psychological depiction of parenting, complicated relationships, and regret that you don’t want to miss. I can’t wait to see Gyllenhaal’s next project.
Image courtesy of danalbrown via Wikimedia Commons