The magic of the lost daughter

January 2, 2022

The Lost Daughter, a movie recently released on Netflix, is gunning for an Oscar on the strength of its nuanced characterisation and effective direction

The magic of the lost daughter


The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, of Christopher Nolan’s Batman fame, follows the story of a writer with an intriguing past who is vacationing in Greek islands. The movie is aptly named, as Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut has an overarching sense of impending doom and melancholy. It does not take long for the ambience and chemistry to change, as everything is not what it seems with this scholarly vacation meant to be filled with research and reading.

Present-day Leda, played by Olivia Coleman, runs into issues as soon as she arrives at her vacation rental. There is the wailing foghorn and flashing lights from the lighthouse nearby, which cuts into the facade of the picturesque beach house. And although Lyle, the caretaker of the rental, played by Ed Harris, assures her that it is a fleeting problem, he cannot say the same for the loud and brash family who encroach upon her beach, further ruining the idyllic setting.

Conflict arises as Callie, played by Dagmara Dominczyk, demands that Leda move her chair, which she refuses to do, showing the audience a different side to her normally meek, scholarly demeanour. This draws the viewer into Leda’s life, and makes them wonder where her unwavering resolve comes from.

The scene has effectively been set for the psychological thriller that is The Lost Daughter, based on a 2006 novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante. Will (Paul Mescal), an Irish student working at a bar, warns Leda by insinuating that the family is trouble, which furthers the intrigue as Leda is strangely drawn to Nina (Dakota Johnson), Callie’s struggling daughter-in-law who has an unruly child. Leda becomes forlorn and teary eyed as she sees herself and her own missed opportunities in Nina as she struggles to deal with her uncontrollable daughter.

The movie signifies that not every woman yearns for offspring or the process of child rearing, nor is the process of raising children as happy and forgiving for every one as it may be for some.

We are taken back in time to observe a younger Leda, played by Jessie Buckley, trying to keep her head above water amidst the demands of an academic career and raising two children. Her husband, played by Jack Farthing, is disinterested and does little to help her. She feels trapped and unappreciated until a colleague (Peter Sarsgaard) recognises her intellect and shows interest in her at an academic conference. This entire sequence is characteristic of the melancholic ambience, as the viewer steps into Leda’s life to observe her mistakes and missed opportunities first hand.

On a shallow level, the movie appears to be a commentary on juggling child-rearing and careers, but as the story progresses, it becomes clearer that it is an exploration of what motherhood can take away from you and the ways in which it upend your life. It is also apparent that this take on motherhood is shameful and must be hidden, as societal norms insist that motherhood brings nothing but happiness and ‘completion’ no matter the physical, mental or emotional cost.

Leda tries to empathise with Callie, who is pregnant, saying, “Children are a crushing responsibility.” However, Leda’s advice, or warning as some might see it, means little to Callie as she is smug about having the attention of men due to her outward presentation that explicitly caters to traditional gender roles and feminine performance. Callie automatically assumes that she has the upper hand and sees Leda as irrelevant since she is alone and must be lonely. Gyllenhaal’s direction leans towards the ominous. We see unsettling imagery of a worm slithering out of a doll’s mouth and Leda getting hit by pine cones.

Although the movie is meant to show Leda and her life, Gyllenhaal filters it through an external, empathetic lens. The topic of motherhood and its challenges continues to be considered taboo or irrelevant. The movie signifies that not every woman yearns for offspring or the process of child rearing, nor is the process of raising children as happy and forgiving for every one as it may be for some. Narratives of women rejecting their supposed sole purpose that is inflicted upon them by society are severely under-represented in the media. Maggie Gyllenhaal does a great job of bringing such a narrative to light. With creative direction and convincing performances, particularly by Colman, it is no wonder that this Netflix movie is hopeful for an Oscar.

The author has a background in art and history

The magic of the lost daughter