‘The Lost Daughter’ Explained – Analyzing Leda’s Character & Symbols, In-Depth

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‘The Lost Daughter,’ directed by debutant filmmaker Maggie Gyllenhaal, narrates the story of Leda and her complex journey as a mother. With the Great Mother comes the Terrible Mother archetype, and the film tries to unfold the complicated intricacy of being a mother. Leda, a professor, oscillates between these two extremes. While a mother is expected to be selfless, it is in the process of being a mother that she loses a part of her identity as an independent individual.  During her stay in Greece for a work vacation, Leda chances upon a mother-daughter who reminds her of her days as a young mother.

The film takes us on a journey with Leda, often showing us the world the way she saw it. As she tried to concentrate on her academic work, Leda was soon distracted by Nina and her daughter Elena. The affectionate relationship between Nina and Elena reminded Leda of her days spent with her daughters Bianca and Martha when they were young.

The point of view shots of Leda creates the idea of a voyeur looking at her source of secret pleasure from a distance. It is, probably, because of the distance that the memories reawakened were sweet and intimate. Just like a film unfolding as Leda had described, she watched the people at the beach; she was barely noticed by the people around her, making her almost invisible in the chaos, just like one is at a movie theatre. This realm was broken once she was spoken to, gradually involving her in what would turn into an awkward journey. While the childhood days of her daughters are shared in detail with the audience, we end up not knowing much about the present condition of her daughters beyond their age. An assumption of the lingering distance that the mother and her daughters might share is indicated, though the phone calls and the concern shared by her daughter over the phone confirmed the feeling of love and respect.

It is not just the relationship between Nina and Elena that made Leda take a walk down the memory lane but also the relationship shared between Nina and her husband. Young love that comes with sexual tension reminded Leda of her then-husband and their fading romance. 

As the story in ‘The Lost Daughter’ progressed, the pleasant memories were replaced by those that troubled her. As a young mother and a scholar, Leda struggled to manage her academic interest and her daughters. The relationship between the mother and children started to strain as Leda was starting to lose a part of herself. Distracted from work by the wailing toddlers, Leda turned into a furious mother trapped with responsibilities. It is with the disappearance of Elena that the traumatic memories resurfaced. Leda managed to find Elena just the way she found Bianca when she had lost her at a beach. Leda was admired by Nina after she helped find Elina, though the joy was replaced by struggle when Elina threw tantrums for losing her doll. 

In the scene, before Elina disappeared, she was shown playing with her doll and, in the process biting its cheek. As the parents searched for the doll, we learned that it was Leda who stole it. The doll symbolizes Leda’s childhood and her intense desire to protect it from the whole world. Leda remembered how she gifted her favorite doll to Bianca, but her daughter destroyed it as a possible way to mark her ownership and to seek attention from her mother. Leda threw the doll in anger in her past, but she decided to rescue it this time. She kept it safe and hidden inside a cupboard. Even though Leda knew how the daughter troubled the mother for losing her favorite toy, she decided to keep it nonetheless. 

Leda stole the doll and returned it in the end
Credits: Netflix

While protecting her lost childhood can be a way to read her interest in keeping the toy, it can also be described as a way to punish the child (Elina/Bianca) for destroying something that she loved so dearly. Her destructive relationship with Bianca, particularly, has been established several times in “The Lost Daughter.” It is, probably, the older siblings who yearn for affection as the mother’s attention gets divided, leading to conflict, anger, and hate.

Leda is a complex character, her consciousness guiding her to perform certain roles and duties while her actual interest might be self-centered as human beings are, mostly. 

As she was appreciated by her professors for her academic success, Leda gradually decided to prioritize her interest and growth. Her extra-marital affair created further distance between the children and her. While her husband begged her to stay, Leda left him with their two daughters to take care of. She left for three years; her little children could barely comprehend the complexity of the situation. This was something Leda was ashamed of; her conscience made her feel guilty. Though deep down, she described the separation as “amazing,” an added reason for her self-hate. Her guilt consumed her, much like her body that was marked with the pine cone that fell from the tree.

A worm crept out of the mouth of the doll Leda protected. As the rot left, Leda decided to return the doll to Nina before she left. Meanwhile, Leda discovered Nina’s extra-marital relationship with Will. He expressed their intention in spending a night together at Leda’s rented apartment, and they hoped she would help them by lending her keys. Nina could all the more relate with Nina and her desire to escape her responsibilities. She returned the doll to Nina and explained that she had stolen the doll from Elena. A confused Nina hurled abuse at Leda, as Leda continued to apologize. Leda described herself as an “unnatural mother” and also warned Nina that “None of this pass”, in relation to the constant pain and trouble that a mother has to go through. 

Nina physically hurt Leda with a sharp hat pin and left the room. A mentally and physically injured Leda left the small town in Greece. As she drove past the beach, her car suddenly broke down, and she stumbled out onto the beach, where she collapsed near the shore. Leda slept at the beach and was woken by the waves crashing. Her navel injury reminded her of a conversation she had with her daughters when they wanted to know the meaning of navel.

Nina finally decided to call her daughter as she saw blood dripping from her wound. Bianca and Martha were delighted to hear from their mother. Their love and affection were unhindered. The beauty of this scene, where the affection and love shared by the mother with her daughters is ultimately expressed and restored, is connected with the navel. The navel symbolizes the connection an offspring shares with their mother even before birth. The navel is the lasting symbol that indicates the point of attachment of the umbilical cord through which the mother nourished her baby. 

“Peel it like a snake, don’t let it break” is another interesting use of symbols and connections. The mother, as was observed by Bianca, took care to not let the orange skin break while peeling it, leading to a snake-like appearance. The final peeling of the orange skin, almost feels like a new birth of some sort, where she peels the skin off while talking to her daughters.

A spell bounding performance by Olivia Colman, ‘The Lost Daughter,’ is layered with meanings and symbols. The cinematography creates a sense of intimacy and closeness with the constant use of extreme close-ups. Fascinating to watch and profound in thoughts, ‘The Lost Daughter’ is worth a second watch.


Also Read: ‘The Lost Daughter’ Review Analysis: A Tale of Motherhood, As Told By Mothers!


The Lost Daughter is a 2021 Drama film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. It is based on the novel written by Elena Ferrante. The film is streaming on Netflix.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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