Children are not dolls. Although often portrayed as cherished cherubs or completely premature, children can be an awful handful – they kick, scream, hit, cry, lie and demand that parents abandon their lives so that the children can survive. Although hardly worthy of blame, they require a kind of patience, compassion and (above all) attention which some people simply do not have, and to claim that all women should be mothers only leads to a slew of bad parents and unhappy children. Some people think they want children; they really just want dolls.
The new movie The Lost Daughter explore this understandably challenging concept with subtlety and mystery. In the movie, Olivia Colman plays Leda Caruso, a lonely woman on vacation at a Greek beach who encounters a large family with a young, beautiful mother and her daughter. Leda is discouraged and mysteriously cold, expressing the peculiar British way of being polite and refusing help while clearly getting an existential panic attack in slow motion.
Lost and found
When Leda tears as she observes the tender play between a mother named Nina (perfectly portrayed by an almost unrecognizable Dakota Johnson) and child, the audience begins to question the woman’s history. Nina loses her daughter one day on the beach, which will be the first in a series of flashbacks about Leda’s own motherhood (where she is played by a tense Jessie Buckley), where it is revealed how unprepared the woman was for parenthood. She simply does not seem able to pay attention to her children– she slips headphones over her ears while her child cries and screams desperately for her; she refuses to kiss her child’s injured finger when the young girl asks for it; she seems to be indignant with her children because they have shifted her attention from her marriage and career; she slams doors shut and breaks glass. “I hate talking to my kids on the phone,” she says. “Do not say that,” replied a man, ignoring her completely.
Nina’s daughter is found by Leda, and the younger mother thanks the older mother tearfully and out of breath; they close their eyes several times, and it seems that they are deeply connected to each other regarding their dissatisfaction and frustrations with motherhood. The family thanks Leda, but does not realize that the older woman stole the child’s doll, which she then becomes obsessive about in disturbing ways; unfortunately, Nina’s daughter will not forget the doll, nor will her violent and intimidating family. What follows is a strange, mature drama about motherhood, loneliness, secrets and abandonment.
Olivia Coleman used to be the most underrated actor in the field, and worked quietly but hilariously in the comedy world of British television (with brilliant performances in the innovative Green wing and the humorously loose Peep Show). Colman’s skills progressed to drama when she received awards and praise for her painful performance in the brutal Tirannosourus and the brilliant, melancholic series Flowers. She is now rightly recognized as one of the greatest living actors today, after winning an Oscar as a foreign queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Favorite, and another Oscar nomination for The father with Anthony Hopkins.
In The Lost Daughter, she continues to master the art by cutting the show down to simple gestures and line deliveries that suggestively suggest something deeper. “Do not you have children?” a woman asks her. “Yes, I have two daughters,” Leda replied. “Where are they?” Leda pauses before saying without any response, “Children are a crushing responsibility.” Every rule she gives and gestures she makes are perfect, and she carries the film from beautiful beginning to end.
As the film progresses, it becomes really tense as Nina’s family may suspect that Leda stole their doll. Threatening looks and angry behavior of the men in Nina’s (possibly Mafia-adjacent) family create a real sense of danger, but Leda is oddly determined to hold the doll (which becomes an obvious but appropriate metaphor for so much pain). An unusual kind of tension is woven throughout the film, but it is the ending sequences that really elevate this mood.
Gyllenhaal finds her crew
This is surprising enough Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s first film, which she writes and directs with extreme brilliance. The actor wrote to Elena Ferrante, the author of the original novel, during the process of acquiring the rights to produce the film. The author wrote her back by saying, “Yes, you may have the rights, but this contract is void unless you order it.” So Gyllenhaal came to direct this masterpiece of adult drama. During her three decades of acting in the film industry (with great praise), she must have picked up some behind-the-scenes skills, because her work here is intuitively excellent.
She begins the film as the great French cinematographer Helene Louvart shoots most of it, in slightly shaky (and sometimes extreme) close-up shots. The title sequence should immediately become iconic, as a shaky camera follows Colman claustrophobically before cutting to the outside to see her standing barefoot at the beach. She collapses, her vertical line becoming horizontal and parallel to the crashing waves as Dickon Hinchliffe’s catchy, romantic score blows out of the void. Hinchliffe’s music is incredible here; as a member of the long-term and seminars indie group The Tindersticks, the composer knows how to create pop music that accompanies the images, rather than distracting attention from the images. The score honestly sounds like a classic composition from a great fictional Hollywood movie from the 60’s.
The actors who bring Gyllenhaal compliment the story perfectly. Apart from Colman’s powerful performance, Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris, Paul Mescal, and the above Johnson and Buckley are phenomenal with how each of them relates to the solitary protagonist in their own particular ways. Leda inspires a range of emotions from everyone she meets, depending on how much they know her and how much she prefers to reveal to them; the cast is each wonderful to detect the disgust, envy, lust, anger, concern and pity that each of them expresses towards her. Ultimately, though, it’s the elusive relationship that develops between Nina and Leda that is the beating heart of this sometimes stand-alone film. Leda exists on the one hand to leave her children, with Nina, perhaps, on the other. They meet in a world that demands motherhood to be one thing, where those who do not fit in are condemned to suffer alone.
Affonso Goncalves ‘editing is also noteworthy here, elaborating on the characters’ past and present relationships. He slowly and beautifully brings the two different timelines and families together with a kind of emotional architecture, bridging Leda’s past and present together while structuring the many spaces in the film to create a cohesive whole. He and Gyllenhal unite the two clues more through editing than through actual dialogue and interaction, by weaving their parenting issues and personal issues together through inverted shots and non-linear cuts.
Motherhood is a beautiful thing, and so are children, but it is not a universal experience. “When the oldest was seven and the youngest five, I left,” Leda tells Nina. “I left them and I did not see my children for three years.”
“How did it feel without them?” asked Nina.
“It felt incredible.” Colman stays right, but still cries as he delivers this rule, capturing the strange contradiction of her character. She knows she did something wrong by leaving her children, but she can not help that she became happier by doing so. She chose to focus her attention on something else – an affair, work, love, literature, or simply herself. It’s a radical sentiment to bring to the fore in a movie, but a liberating one for women. In his own dark and mysterious way, The Lost Daughter is a feminist masterpiece
Oscar winner Olivia Colman wants to join Samuel L. Jackson on the Secret Invasion series.
About the author