The Woman at the Center of The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s uneven but still compelling cinematic debut, is a translation expert. This seems fitting, since the actress-turned-director herself faces a question of translation: how to convey Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, which is essentially an extended inner monologue, through the visual medium of the film.
The answer, of course, is to get Olivia Colman. (This seems to be the solution to many film and television problems. The woman is just amazing.) Like Leda, 48, an English scholar who came to a Greek island for a vacation, Colman (Broadchurch, The Favorite, Fleabag, The Queen) conveys flashes of complex, sometimes contradictory emotions, in a minimalist but moving evocation of maternal ambivalence.
?? Children areâ¦ an overwhelming responsibility, ?? Leda said, seemingly for a chat, to a beach acquaintance who happened to be seven months pregnant. It is quite an opening.
Leda herself, the mother of two grown daughters who recently left home, looks euphoric but somewhat bewildered by the unknown experience of leisure and calm. Her reading and writing idyll was soon shattered by the appearance on the beach of a large, extended and brash American family. It’s not just the noise and chaos that Leda finds disruptive. She focuses on Nina (Dakota Johnson from Fifty shades of Grey) and her little daughter, Elena (Athena Martin Anderson), observing their interactions, both tender and surly, with a look that is difficult to analyze.
When little Elena goes away, it’s Leda who finds her. It is also Leda who ?? possessed by a capricious impulse which at first seems inexplicable to us, and even to Leda herself ?? steal the child’s beloved doll.
Leda keeps the doll, despite clear evidence that Elena is deprived of her, moaning, moaning and clinging, and Nina is consequently even more harassed and deprived of sleep. A friend warns that Nina’s family are not good people. a coded reference to organized crime, and the barely-cashed violence of Nina’s husband, suggests Leda’s actions are not only cruel, but possibly dangerous.
As we realize, Leda uses the doll to remember and even re-enact her own experiences as a young mother. In scenes that are more than flashbacks, which offer another story alongside an equally powerful and nuanced performance by Jessie Buckley (I’m thinking of ending things, Chernobyl), we see Leda as an academic in her twenties trying to establish her career, living in a tiny apartment with a distracted husband and two young children.
Leda tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to balance her very palpable love for her daughters with her job, her sanity, her sense of herself.
She becomes fascinated by the stories of men who left families behind, who have just left, as she prepares detailed instructions on preferences, habits, schedules, weaknesses and plush toys. kids favorite, plus a fridge full of kids. – acceptable meals, before she can attend a conference for just a few days.
These are familiar Ferrante themes. The Italian writer is fascinated by “those who go and those who stay”. She is brutally outspoken about the taboo figure of the âunnatural motherâ as Leda is called at one point, the woman who struggles with the maternal self-denial that our culture demands.
Gyllenhaal, working with Johnson, Colman, and Buckley, turns that into a tangible sense of the ordinary, everyday harshness of motherhood. She offers a non-sentimental image of little children pushing and pulling, kicking and slapping their mothers, of mothers facing breathtaking exhaustion and short anger, tantrums and tears.
There are the great emotions: the overflowing love, the pure joy of rolling on the floor with your children, the panic of losing sight of them on the beach, even for a few moments. But mainly The lost girl is about the in-between, a rarely explored middle ground that’s covered in crumbs, strewn with Lego, often wonderful and sometimes maddening, tiring, boring. The lost girl conveys, in a way that films rarely do, the intimacy, the intensity, the immensity of caring for little children, of being their whole world.
Mothers in movies tend to be either holy and selfless or monstrous and malicious. Leda, as described by the wonderful Colman, is simply human. Many viewers, even if they don’t understand all of his actions, will recognize his feelings.
A student at the University of Winnipeg and later at York University in Toronto, Alison Gillmor considered becoming an art historian. She eventually caught the journalism bug when she started as a visual arts critic for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
Read the full biography