The Lost Daughter – Maggie Gyllenhaal’s masterful directorial debut starring Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, and Dakota Johnson, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante – begins with present-day Leda (Colman) looking distraught as she approaches the ocean at night. She’s wearing white. She’s injured and, as the tide rolls over her feet, she collapses.
The title card appears over her body and Dickon Hinchliffe’s gripping score makes its first appearance. The recurring musical passage “Leda” immediately brings to mind thematic and phrasing elements from James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” While Brown’s lead character is “lost in the wilderness” and “lost in the bitterness,” viewers watch on as Leda becomes lost in the memories of her past and the decisions she simultaneously appears to regret and rejoice.
Cut to Leda arriving in Greece on holiday. She’s staying at a rental with a beautiful beach where she reads, relaxes, and eats ice cream until a boisterous, menacing family from New York arrives and dominates the space. Throughout the film, Leda becomes fascinated by one family member in particular, Nina (Johnson), who alternates between showering her child with love and attention and ignoring her at times of annoyance or exhaustion.
Seeing Nina provokes Leda to reflect on her experiences when her own daughters were young. This era is shown in not quite a flashback, but more of a parallel story line, with Buckley taking on the role of the younger Leda with emotional sophistication.
Warning: Spoilers will be discussed from this point forward.
After Nina’s daughter goes missing on the beach and Leda finds her, the two women develop a kinship forged in the unspoken joys and frustrations of motherhood. While running into each other at the shops, Leda buys Nina a hatpin to help keep her sun hat in place, and the duo each make a pair of confessions. Nina discusses her affair with Will – a young man who works at the beach resort – and Leda talks about how she left her children for several years when they were young. Leda is unfazed by Nina’s affair, while Nina seems at first confused and then intrigued by Leda’s confession.
A few days later, things come to a head when Leda admits that she stole Nina’s daughter’s beloved doll, because she was just playing, provoking an angry Nina to stab Leda with the hatpin. Viewers then see Leda – bleeding through her blouse – leaving the rental with her luggage, driving to the beach, and passing out at the shoreline where the movie began.
In the morning, Leda calls her daughters, who express minor concern that they haven’t heard from their mother in a few days. Leda says that she’s alive but the ending leaves enough ambiguity for audiences to decide for themselves.
On one hand, Leda flat-out says that she is alive as she sits by the water, which often represents life. She is happy and fully present while talking to her girls. On the other hand, an orange appears out of nowhere – like a gift from God – in the final scene, and Leda begins to peel it “like a snake,” just as she did for her daughters when they were little. Elsewhere in the movie, flashes of an unconscious Leda are intercut with present scenes, perhaps giving a hint that the story viewers are seeing is Leda’s life flashing before her eyes in the final moments before death.
It’s hard to believe that The Lost Daughter is Gyllenhaal’s debut as a director. Her technique is patient, poetic, and caring. She allows room for her characters to make mistakes without imparting judgement on them. Rather than indicting Leda for leaving her children – to return only when she missed them – Gyllenhaal paints a full portrait of a woman who is drowning in her responsibilities as a mother, wife, and academic striving for greatness professionally.
Buckley does an excellent job portraying young Leda as both a loving mother and someone who has nothing left to give, while Colman’s approach is beautifully subtle as she waivers between confidence and doubt about her past. It is clear that she feels great pain for what she did to her children – and herself – and in many ways, her actions seem calculated as a way to welcome some kind of punishment. Johnson’s performance is arguably the best of her career – right up their with her perfectly unsettling role in Suspiria – as she quietly navigates a sprawling range of emotions. Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris, Paul Mescal, and Dagmara Dominczyk also shine in supporting roles.
The Lost Daughter is heavy cinematic fare, but Gyllenhaal’s delicate touch, along with the authentic acting of the film’s three leads, creates an enjoyable and thought-provoking viewing experience that obliterates the idea that choices are either good or bad. People are complicated, but that’s what makes them compelling. Leda (younger and older) and Nina are the types of characters that stick with you long after the final credits roll.
The Lost Daughter is in select theaters and can be streamed on Netflix.