Film review: The Lost Daughter

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directing debut is a fascinating and nuanced look at motherhood

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The Lost Daughter is the latest case of a movie with MLTS – Misleading Trailer Syndrome. Between the deep-bass music, the weird whispering, and Olivia Colman looking creepy and mysterious, you’d be forgiven for expecting some kind of Girl on the Train , what’s-even-real-here thriller. You may still be expecting it deep into the movie’s two-hour runtime, waiting for the inevitable twist. Well – spoiler alert – the twist is that there’s no twist.


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This is not a criticism of the film – just the trailer. The Lost Daughter , based on a 2006 novel by Elena Ferrante, and a writing/directing debut for actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a fascinating examination of motherhood and the presumed selflessness of those who engage in it.

Colman stars as Leda, a professor of Italian literature taking a solo vacation on a small Greek island. The solicitous Lyle (Ed Harris) helps her get settled, and the next morning she’s doing some reading on the beach when she realizes that she’s far from alone here. An extended family descends on the shore like a flock of squabbling birds – noisy kids, noisier young men and harried women, including young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson), who freaks out when she loses track of her daughter. Leda helps reunite mother and child, but impulsively keeps the kid’s doll.


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The presence of the doll, so like one she used to own, sends Leda down rabbit holes of memory. And here’s where some fortuitous casting kicks in. Jessie Buckley looks a little like Colman and, with her accent pitched just so, is completely believable as the younger Leda, trying to balance academic life with an also-working husband and two daughters who look to be about seven and five.

Over numerous flashbacks we see Leda having fun with her kids but also being annoyed by them, overwhelmed by their needs and, in a scene with which many a young parent will empathize (if only secretly), elated when work takes her briefly away from them. She’s not a bad mom, just a stressed-out one.

Gyllenhaal balances the here and now with the then and there pretty perfectly, showing how a past experience can influence our current decisions in ways that might seem irrational even to ourselves. And, conversely, how an event in the present can suddenly send us hurtling back to a recollection of former trauma or joy.


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It’s all leading up to a revelation of something that happened to Leda when she was herself a young mother. So yes, there is a plot twist of sorts, just probably not the one you’re expecting. Along the way she grows more anxious and angry at the disruptions of her fellow vacationers, who really are a loutish lot, their rambunctious behaviour always threatening to tip over into real violence.

But it’s the institution of motherhood that’s at the forefront of this drama. (An odd word, institution; applied to prisons, asylums and parenthood.) Leda once thrilled at time spent away from her young daughters, she says, because she’s selfish. But she yearned to be back with them for the same reason. “I’m an unnatural mother,” she concludes.

Maybe so, but viewers will be forgiven for finding themselves just as unnatural in their feelings. The plot’s biggest twist may be the one it creates in your own head.

The Lost Daughter opens Dec. 17 in cinemas, and Dec. 31 on Netflix.

3.5 stars out of 5



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