“Motherhood is a crushing responsibility.”
The calm waters of a small beach in Greece brings a quiet and relaxing presence as the salt water waves fill your senses and crash ever so soothingly upon the shore. It’s an ideal getaway that any one of us would drop our current life to go to. Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), a literature professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts has taken this opportunity to indulge herself for a few days as she takes in this environment for her new vacation. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right? I personally anticipated The Lost Daughter for weeks, but as the credits rolled, I was left feeling dissatisfied.
Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s short story of the same title, The Lost Daughter examines the severe messiness of motherhood and, dare I say, the almost hereditary traits that come with the misgivings of a parent’s care. While Leda is there to enjoy her relaxing vacation, it’s abruptly interrupted by a rowdy, and incredibly rude, group. But someone immediately strikes her—a young woman named Nina (Dakota Johnson) who’s with her little girl. Leda becomes entranced by this young mother and her toddler—soon getting to vaguely know the two. But the more Leda becomes enveloped by this young mother’s life, the more she sees herself in Nina and her dealings with her own two daughters.
The story is told through flashbacks as Leda reflects on her actions as a young mother. This is the film’s shining achievement through its ability to examine how much of the parental responsibility often falls on the mother’s shoulders while she is often juggling a full-time job or following her own dream. This is where a young Leda (Jessie Buckley) comes into play. Buckley, who is continuing to climb the step ladder of greatness, in my opinion, takes the brunt of the acting upon her shoulders and goes full throttle. It’s a shame that her performance here is being left from awards consideration because she truly does give the best performance in the film. She brilliantly conveys how the stress of handling children builds to a boiling point. Eventually leading her to feel like her only option is to escape, or else she may explode.
Though there may be times when the film may shine, The Lost Daughter does tend to feel like a slog. It is both too long, yet doesn’t give you enough to sink your teeth into. Nothing truly makes sense. The story is incredibly weak, which makes situations like the missing child or the toddler’s lost doll, or Leda’s fixation over the doll—moments where you want the film to turn into something truly revealing—it drops the ball. When Nina’s toddler goes missing, it’s Leda who finds her, but soon the toddler’s precious doll is lost. And as Nina describes it, the toddler “can’t sleep without it.” As Leda opens her beach bag, there’s the doll. She fixates on the doll as she takes it upon herself to clean it up and change its clothes. By the end, there’s no real repercussions or moments of clarity; it’s just over. Colman, along with Johnson, do their best with their talents to pull it out from being as weak of a story as it is. Their few interactions with one another make the film become interesting.
In her first directorial debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal puts her mind on such a thought-provoking topic such as motherhood, and makes the audience come to terms with how ugly it is as much as it can be fulfilling. The term of The Lost Daughter, as the title so mysteriously tells us, can be many things. Who is this daughter? Leda’s own daughters? Nina? Nina’s daughter? The doll? I believe it is all the women involved. The revolving door of both motherhood and the daughters it affects in the process. As Young Leda’s toxic experience with her own mother shows us in the film as her husband threatens to take the girls to her mother, and Leda describes it as a “black-hole.”
I have no qualms with Gyllenhaal and her aspirations for her work behind the camera, nor do I have any qualms of the source material. The Lost Daughter is an extraordinary piece that highlights so many important elements of the “crushing responsibility” of motherhood. However, with that being said, I do believe that there was a break in adaptation, because of how short the original story is. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, I do believe it is extremely hard to adapt a short story into a full feature-length film. It rarely turns out the way the screenwriter and director plan it to be. Gyllenhaal, no doubt, had high hopes for her adaptation, but in the process I feel like she may have bogged down the story, like so many screenwriters before her, with unnecessary pieces, in order to lengthen the film for a two hour runtime.
So by the end, what’s the verdict? Before I wrote this review, I thought I had my mind made up. But I sat here writing, I reflected more on the meaning of The Lost Daughter and the importance of this story. I can’t help but think that the film almost screeches to a halt during the second act. I’ve heard some critics use the term “slow-burn” when describing it’s tedious pace, but I reserve that term for when things keep happening at a slower pace than normal. This, however, feels like nothing is happening. It pains me to say that. To be honest, it’s a double edged sword, in my opinion. A story with such meaning as this may not get the attention it deserves by being the short story Ferrante meant it to be. But by Gyllenhaal adapting it for the big screen it gets a wider audience, but in return, is distorted so wildly from its original piece. I guess in the end, we have to take the good with the bad.
The Lost Daughter
Written and Directed by: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Starring: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jack Farthing, Paul Mescal, and Ed Harris