‘The Lost Daughter’ – a character study of motherhood is a must see movie
By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Let’s just cut to the chase. “The Lost Daughter” is the don’t-miss movie of 2021.
And it would be so easy to miss. There’s been no major marketing campaign a la “West Side Story” or “The Power of the Dog.”
Oscar-winner Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) has a certain celebrity, but nothing like that of the C/Kates, Blanchett and Winslet. Maggie Gyllenhaal does have a name, but it’s as an actress (and sister of Jake), not as a first-time director. And the plot…well, it’s more felt than acted upon. No sex scenes to speak of, no car chases, no murders. Just the tale of a middle-aged British professor of Renaissance languages on a solo (she calls it a “working”) vacation on a lovely Greek island.
Colman plays Leda, an academic who seems more or less content with the small slice of paradise she’s found for the next few weeks. Ok, so the handyman (Ed Harris) who runs her vacation rental is a little intrusive. And there’s that ginormous bug on her pillow. And the constant irritation of the lighthouse beam that swipes her room at all hours.
But a beach chair, a bundle of books, a dip in the Mediterranean, the occasional foray into the nearby picture-perfect village – that’s all Leda needs.
Then, catastrophe. Or, for Leda, close enough. A boisterous (read vulgar) extended family from Queens intrudes on her solitude. They grow from a minor irritation to a major annoyance – especially after Leda refuses to move from her tranquil spot to accommodate them. A sort of undeclared war begins.
Still, the amateur sociologist in Leda can’t resist studying her new neighbors. Especially Nina (Dakota Johnson), the lithesome young mother of a whiny six-year-old. When the girl goes missing, leading to much hysteria, Leda is the one who finds her. She earns the family’s gratitude, thus creating a temporary truce. Except, the child’s favorite doll is still lost – meaning an upset kid and an unsettled brood (now they’re loud and angry).
At this point, the movie begins flashing back to Leda’s youth, to her years as a young mother (Jessie Buckley) trying to balance her needs as an up-and-coming scholar with those of her two young daughters. It’s hard to concentrate on translating Italian poetry when your seven-year-old is banging her hand on the back of your head.
“The Lost Daughter” is a kind of dual character study – of a mother and of the very nature of motherhood. To paraphrase Shakespeare, some are born mothers, some achieve motherhood and others have motherhood thrust upon them. Given the mythical roots of Leda’s name (Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”), it’s pretty clear she’s one of those who had motherhood thrust upon her.
Gyllenhaal’s breathtaking direction – can this really be her first film? – and her cast’s deft ensemble work are mesmerizing. Colman’s portrayal goes beyond mere words, and she’s matched, every moment, by Buckley’s expert incarnation of her younger self. And scattered all around them are other brilliant performances: Harris and Johnson and Gyllenhaal’s real-life husband, Peter Sarsgaard, as a too-attractive academic young Leda encounters at a seminar.
It’s almost impossible to oversell “The Lost Daughter” because it’s so sales-resistant. But please give it a look. It’ll take you somewhere the movies don’t often go, and the journey is unforgettable.
“The Lost Daughter” currently is showing in movie theaters, and it will be available on Netflix on Dec. 31.