For all the memorable on-screen mothers – think Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird, Sarah Connor or Bambi’s mum – there are precious few great movies about motherhood. The experience of raising kids, with all its ebbing tides of joy and raw exasperation, rarely seems to get spotlighted on screen, its psychological toll rarely rendered cinematically.
Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s empathetic, knotty film is that story of motherhood – and much else besides. It borrows building blocks from genre – sunkissed Patricia Highsmith-alike mystery-thriller, adultery drama, roadtrip flick – to assemble a character study of a middle-aged woman with something troubling in her past. It’s a seriously impressive filmmaking debut.
It helps, of course, to have actors of the calibre of Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley sharing the lead role, in contemporaneous and flashback forms. Colman’s Leda Caruso is a middle-aged divorcée spending the summer on an Italian beach, working on an academic paper. A linguistics professor, her focus on work is loose and gets even looser when a brash Italian-American family, including Dakota Johnson’s glamorous young mum Nina, rocks up to dominate the sun-loungers and loom intimidatingly in her sunlight.
In truth, there’s not much sun to block out. Gyllenhaal and her cinematographer, Hélène Louvart, keep Colman’s Leda bathed in a chilly light, even as the rays beam down around her. Something has washed away, some inner colour has leeched, and exactly what has caused this is slowly revealed in the Buckley scenes. They’re a collage of joyful family moments, painful squabbles, and sheer, face-aching tiredness and frustration.
Gyllenhaal and her editor, Affonso Gonçalves, mix up the cadence of her recollections of those turbulent younger years as a struggling but ambitious professor losing herself to parenting. They feel more like memories than flashbacks – sometimes drifting, sometimes jerking, kicking and screaming, to the surface.
The cumulative effect is searing: you really feel The Lost Daughter in the pit of your stomach. It is empathetic but not always sympathetic to its protagonist. Her decision to hold onto a treasured doll belonging to Nina’s daughter seems cruel and capricious, but Gyllenhaal also wants you to understand it. The doll’s allure is symbolic of… well, the title fills in the blanks.
The Lost Daughter expertly juggles tone, hopscotching between timelines and slipping from tender to tense and back again, always challenging the viewer’s judgments and preconceptions in unexpected ways.
Leda’s relationships with men, past and present, is given expertly-acted texture across the two timelines by Jack Farthing (husband), Peter Sarsgaard (colleague), Paul Mescal (young confidante) and Ed Harris (older confidante). But it’s Nina’s relationship with herself, how her hopes and dreams refuse to elide in the way she’d imagined they would, that is under the microscope here. How savagely unforgiving society is of a woman and mother deemed to be self-centred. And how it isn’t nearly as unforgiving as a woman can be to herself.
In US and UK cinemas now. On Netflix Dec 31.