The Lost Daughter puts Olivia Colman in a beautiful meditation on motherhood
One of the special pleasures of The lost girl, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature debut as a director, wonders which of the film’s few important female roles she would be best at playing. Could it be that of Olivia Colman, the Leda literature speaker in the current thread of the film? Or even the younger version of the character, played by Jessie Buckley, in a way you can pretty much see the imperious matriarch she would become in. There is also a supporting role played by Succession‘s Dagmara Domińczyk, with a Gyllenhaal-type gait – the kind of perky minor role she often found herself confined to in earlier stages of her career. Namely, in author Tom Shone’s recently published book of interviews with Christopher Nolan, the director suggests that the lead actors in a film consciously or unconsciously imitate the ways of the director they are playing for.
These reflections highlight one particular fact: that this is perhaps one of the strongest – at least the most confident and energetic – directorial debut of an actress known since Sarah’s film. Polley. Far from her, his adaptation of the new specialist Alice Munro. The lost girl is also an adaptation of a slender text, that of the great Italian literary recently crowned (as recently placed in the “canon”), the great Italian literary Elena Ferrante; one of his novels set in a carefully crafted current timeline, adorned with a number of thoughtful flashbacks that help enrich our sense of the central character, but don’t turn the text into a jigsaw puzzle where past events poorly explain the present.
His main successes are to adapt his The lost girl as intellectually engaging as the novel, while also bringing the characters to life with performances perfectly appropriate for cinema – one thing an author does not have in his arsenal is summoning a “close-up” camera, with a actor creating this particular emotional transparency in tandem. Beautifully shot by Hélène Louvart (regular collaborator of Alice Rohrwacher and Eliza Hittman), the blocking can be a tad prosaic, sticking to simple montages favoring its actors, and avoiding more complex overall sequences, or shots that give a broader sense of the lush surroundings of a Greek island where the two characters in the film meet by chance.
So, in a story of parallel mothers, we have Leda (Olivia Colman), the Italian literature scholar and translator who comes on a mysteriously lonely vacation to an unnamed Greek island; Craggy American expat Lyle (Ed Harris) owns the vacation home she rents and helps her get settled. On the nearby beach, she sees a large brood of nouveau riche, including Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother on whom Leda gazes voyeurically, Rear window-fashionable (from a squeaky white lounge chair farther from shore). Nina has a little girl, who one day leaves her doll at the beach; Leda retrieves it, but rather than returning it immediately, she clings to it like she’s a toy-obsessed young girl herself.
The bottom line is that seeing this other family – and almost forensic study of Nina’s maternal behavior – sends Leda on an existential quest through her memory, recounting her struggles as the mother of two unruly young daughters, alongside a passionate affair she had with another American academic (partner of Gyllenhaal Peter Sarsgaard). The crux of the matter is that Leda’s dissatisfaction with motherhood – despite her ardor towards her own children – leads her to make a bold decision towards her family obligations, in light of her career and her own personality.
In the flashback sequences, Jessie Buckley gives a lively and passionate performance, beautifully contrasting Colman’s sadness in the present. But there is one streak at the end of the film worth highlighting that sums up the film’s concerns in a weird digression from the main story. In a weirdly insightful moment on what it’s like to be in a foreign land, looking for something new to do on one of your parties there, Leda is sitting in a beer garden. showing a 1950s Hollywood melodrama, pale projected onto a sheet. She sits with her glass of lager as a crowd of teens rush to the screening, sit in the front row, mock the screen, and turn the seats of the ad hoc lounge chair. Colman goes to complain to a bailiff, and gets blocked, which she can only laugh at. This sequence is also in the book, but Gyllenhaal is able to better express how she reveals Leda’s fear, and possibly jealousy, of the young people, her relationship with them in light of her own desires, prejudices, and desires.
But where The lost girl falters from its source, it’s its lack of conciseness – the novel has a bittersweet end, and we end the book stunned by the sleight of hand of the storytelling. Gyllenhaal’s film does not have this conciseness and economy; rather, it is a wandering, irresolute portrait of motherhood, slightly navel-gazing in its bourgeois nook. While Ferrante is more uncompromising: a splash of icy water on the face of the reader and the protagonist.
The lost girl premiered at the Venice Film Festival and hits theaters and on Netflix in December.