On the beach that comparative literature scholar Leda (Olivia Colman) lounges on throughout The Lost Daughter, the skies are a crystal blue, the beaches a shimmering white, the water warm and translucent. But the shore is also infested with crass, noisy people; Leda’s fruit infected by a malignant rot; her bedroom contaminated with screeching bugs; a little girl’s doll corrupted by noxious black liquid and writhing insects. This tonal tension is symptomatic of the film’s spirit: It’s a glossy apple, rapidly decaying from the inside out.
The film takes place over a couple of days as Leda settles into a lavish working vacation. Her relaxation is interrupted, however, when she first lays eyes on Nina (Dakota Johnson), a beautiful, inscrutable young mother. Leda becomes obsessed with Nina, as the latter inadvertently resurfaces troubling memories of Leda’s own distressing experiences as a mother. From that moment onward, Leda’s haunting memories permeate The Lost Daughter until the apple is completely black.
While the narrative itself, adapted from Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name, is relatively straightforward, debut director Maggie Gyllenhaal, who also wrote the screenplay, tackles themes of internalized and externalized sexism with agility and complexity. The film is told largely from the perspective of the frosty, introverted Leda, whose viewpoint is anything but objective. On the first day of her vacation, Leda treats other people on the beach like a nuisance, and we feel the seething irritation of an interrupted afternoon right alongside her. She bickers with the meddlesome Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk) and even dismisses the handsome and helpful bartender Will (Paul Mescal). But then Nina strolls onto the beach, and everything changes.
We see Nina differently than anyone else. While the majority of the film is shot in extreme close-up, Gyllenhaal and cinematographer Hélène Louvart take care to shoot Nina from afar, displaying her long legs and bare torso, immediately rendering her in a sexual light and playing to the male gaze. Her close-ups aren’t much different: Her eyes often nearly meet the lens; we linger on her skin as her daughter Elena pours water over her body.
It isn’t long before we realize that, in the way she looks at Nina, Leda is externalizing the shame she constantly experiences with regards to her own sexuality. Flashbacks are interspersed into The Lost Daughter’s primary narrative: First sparing, and eventually overwhelming. Young Leda, played effervescently by the enigmatic Jessie Buckley, has two toddlers of her own: Martha and Bianca. Leda is ambitious, and her career as a scholar is just beginning to blossom. But her girls are difficult, and her sweet yet clueless husband Joe (Jack Farthing) isn’t much help. A bubbling vat of frustration and disillusionment, Leda’s intense sexual attraction to her peer Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard) eventually serves as a catalyst that allows her to finally become her own woman—not just a mother.
Of course, in a patriarchal society, it’s never quite as easy as that. Gyllenhaal masterfully exhibits the ways a woman’s missteps inevitably catch up with her wherever she goes. Leda is approached by Callie in a gift shop, who proceeds to ambush her with questions about her daughters. The camera gets progressively tighter and tighter, mirroring the claustrophobia and panic that Callie’s questions provoke. The motif of a baby doll returns with a nearly comical frequency. We are subjected to close-ups of the grotesque thing over and over, and reminded that the societal weight of maternity is present even in seemingly frivolous toys. Even on an idyllic Greek island, it seems, Leda is not sheltered from the notion that her identity should be synonymous with motherhood.
Leda’s subtle, complex mental state would not have been possible to convey were it not for Gyllenhaal’s outstanding visual sensibilities. Leda’s struggles are largely internal, but I’m confident that Gyllenhaal’s uniquely tactile storytelling says a great deal more than words ever could. When Leda caresses Elena’s grimy doll, her touch is gentle and somehow filled with regret. When she slides a pin into Nina’s hat, it sounds sinister like a sword being unsheathed, but her careful placement is almost sensual. And when a younger Leda slices the flesh of an orange, her smooth, tactful carving almost feels ominous.
Gyllenhaal’s extraordinary direction, paired with exceptional performances from The Lost Daughter’s lead actresses, culminate in a perfect storm that yields an astute portrait of the painful expectations of womanhood. Unsurprisingly, the great Colman steals the show: She portrays Leda as a flinching, hardened, callous, introspective woman, whose emotional outbursts seem less like catharsis and more like the angry, begrudging inevitability of a kettle boiling over. This is almost jarringly balanced out by Buckley’s emotive performance as her younger counterpart: One minute she is drained and depleted, her shoulders slumped by the weight of the world, the next she floats ecstatically through the frame. And then, of course, there’s Johnson, who is becoming, in my eyes, one of the most capable actresses of her generation. She conveys Nina’s melancholy with a longing, upward glance; a brief bite of her lower lip.
In one of her first conversations with Professor Hardy, a young Leda explains that she was named after W. B. Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan,” which chronicles the Greek myth in which Zeus, in the form of a swan, rapes and impregnates the Spartan queen Leda. The poem’s rape imagery is shocking and violent—so much so that Leda laughs to Hardy about the notion that she would be named after such a ghastly tale. But at the end of the poem, Yeats writes: “Being so caught up, / So mastered by the brute blood of the air, / Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” Which is to say: Perhaps Leda had the power to stop Zeus, but didn’t, because she had the foresight to know that the actions of their daughter, Helen, would inadvertently lead to the Golden Age of Troy.
After Leda discloses her namesake, Yeats’ poem never truly leaves the periphery of The Lost Daughter. For those around Leda—and even Leda, to a point—motherhood supersedes everything. Perhaps it isn’t Leda’s own children that are “lost,” then, or even Nina’s when she momentarily goes missing on the beach. Perhaps the “daughter” here is collective, and refers to the women who are brought up in a patriarchal society that inherently renders them lost.
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Writers: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Stars: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Dominczyk, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris.
Release Date: December 17, 2021 (theaters); December 31, 2021 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.