Wednesday 5 January 2022

Movie Review: The Lost Daughter (2021)

A drama about the travails of motherhood, The Lost Daughter is a study of women's harsh challenges and deep regrets.

Middle-aged literature professor Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) of Cambridge, Massachusetts, arrives for a vacation in Greece. She takes a room at the hotel managed by grizzled American Lyle (Ed Harris). At the nearby small beach where Will (Paul Mescal) runs the concession, Leda observes vacationing young mom Nina (Dakota Johnson) struggling with her demanding daughter Elena. Nina reminds Leda of her own frustrating days as a young mom (Jessie Buckley) juggling graduate studies with caring for two daughters.

Nina is part of a vacationing family from Queens with roots in Greece. Her shifty husband Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) controls businesses in the area, and is frequently absent, leaving Nina bored and interested in Will. Nina's sister Callie (Dagmara DomiƄczyk) is pregnant, and her direct conversational style clashes with Leda's desire for solitude. Elena briefly goes missing at the beach, causing momentary panic. Leda intervenes, inserting herself into Nina's orbit while memories of the past continue to haunt her.

An excellent directorial debut for Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter is a soulful treatise on womanhood and the burden of childcare. Gyllenhaal adapted the novel by the anonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante, and with help from a mesmeric Olivia Colman focuses beautiful lyricism on often neglected topics. 

The intersecting experiences of Leda, Nina and Callie explore motherhood from the multiple prisms of the past, present, and future, resulting in an impressive narrative scope. Mothers' insecurities, unsatisfied desire, and sense of inadequacy, along with the incessant demands of children, husbands getting away with doing less, and the seeming impossibility of juggling parenting with a career, all surface in haunting shadows. Leda observes Nina embarking on a familiar path, then moves from quiet bystander to a version of meddling, driven by a complex mix of caring, selfishness, arrogance, and self-righteousness. The past and present come together, Gyllenhaal interspersing the flashback scenes in just the right doses to artfully round Leda into a genuine and memorably flawed individual.

The drama unfolds through powerful naturalistic behaviours and familiar human dynamics. The vacationing Leda is not much of a people person, and a lot of what happens in Greece is conveyed through silent pauses. Olivia Colman expresses a range of emotions by under-communicating, Leda pulling back into a stern stance when faced with Callie's inquisitions. Her sense of entitlement does erupt in petty self-defeating episodes, first refusing to relocate her beach position to accommodate a family's needs, later picking a fight she cannot win with a group of disruptive youth.

Sexual desire at various life stages is another common theme. Young Leda and Nina are both unsatisfied with their husbands, and as they navigate child care responsibilities, they both seek better male companionship. And now Leda finds men like Lyle and Will potentially interested in her as a project and an enigma, but not necessarily as a person.

At 121 minutes the movie is marginally over-long, some scenes repeating the same notes, others altogether unnecessary. But in the final act, Leda's motivations and self-awareness come into sharp focus. In a moving acknowledgement of frailty, The Lost Daughter couples crushing responsibility with disruption of emotional balance, the consequences rippling into the future.

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