Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a foray into film in ways determined to be individual. A ‘psychological thriller’ is what the film has been dubbed, and perhaps no other has fit so perfectly into the named genre. A film intent on unsettling while evoking and serving up emotion, the Lost Daughter is a singular triumph.
Leda Caruso – The Unnatural Mother
Olivia Colman steps into the sandals of Leda Caruso with a force of will and character that has us confused and intrigued, disappointed by and in awe of. She seems determined to be perfectly at ease on her holiday, but the interruptions are profound, even when they are in the form of silent rotten fruit.
A professor on a working holiday, Leda is strange in her contradictions. Strange perhaps, because so rarely are we witness to characters who do not create the plot, but rather are living it with an absolute lack of exposition. Leda tells us the truth of her motherhood in memorable lines we could count on our fingers, the rest of the time, it is shown to us. In her anxiety, her joy, her opinions and in the woman she watches, we learn over and over that this is not a woman who could be pinned down into a character sketch. She is a human, determined on being the most human one can be, behaving like this woman and that woman, caring like that mother and dismissing like that other mother. She is a portrait of every human impulse, and every feminine urge, and finally, a collection of every secret of motherhood.
Her daughters are what she is asked about, like every mother is. Her daughters are what she talks about, like every mother does. And despite every instance that might reflect her claim of ‘unnatural’, we know with pricking certainty and unwelcome clarity that she is every mother before, every mother now, and every mother we may become.
Nina – The Lost Mother
It is Nina who Leda watches on the beach, lined by black hair and kohl eyes, floating it seems, with her daughter. Nina lays in the water, leans against the bricks, kisses her husband fervently and catches Leda’s eyes with unabashed curiosity.
It is Nina who is the mother of the lost. The daughter who is lost only momentarily and found by Leda. A moment where Nina feels like she ‘was going to die.’ She is the mother of the found daughter who has lost her doll. Once again, she is subjected to horror and desperation. This time (on behalf of the doll) from her daughter, who will rage and cry and scream without end. The daughter who refuses to be let down and the daughter who is ‘driving Nina crazy’. It is clear as Leda watches Nina, and we are allowed to watch Nina, that she is dawning on the truth that she is in a life she can never escape. She is a mother, of the lost, the found, the joyful, the wailing, the hurt and the happiness.
With Nina, we know that we are in the company of a woman as intrigued by Leda as we are. We also know that the intrigue Nina herself holds for Leda, is a piece of the puzzle we are watching. A piece of that which is lingering throughout the film, haunting every turn and every word unsaid.
The Truth, As Told By A Mother
The film leaves us with a hard pill to swallow, that we are watching the truth of motherhood. This thought is served up to us because Maggie Gyllenhaal, who wrote the adapted screenplay, is a mother. Olivia Colman, who plays Leda, is a mother. Dakota Johnson, who is not, is allowed to be the mother who is beginning to understand what this way of life means.
She asks, pathetically, in a moment of tender vulnerability, if it passes. She says she thinks it’s depression, but we know that whatever it is, it is a consequence of motherhood, of the ‘crushing responsibility’ it serves. And Leda tells her, while also telling us, no. It does not pass. None of it passes.
There are two lines in which the film manages to tell us the truth, aided and made devastating by the context of the scenes before and after. Leda says she left her children for three years, three years she did not see them. And the first half of the cruel truth comes to us. ‘It felt amazing.’ Later, much later, when we believe that we know all there is to know now, she is asked why she went back. Why did she go back if it felt amazing without her children?
She shrugs. “I’m their mother. I went back because I missed them.”
Also Read: ‘The Lost Daughter’ Explained
The Lost Daughter is a 2021 that marks the debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal. It stars Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley in the lead roles.