The woman at the centre of The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaals uneven but still mesmerizing filmmaking debut, is an expert on translation. This seems apt, since the actor-turned-director is dealing with a translation question herself: how to convey Elena Ferrantes 2006 novel, which is essentially an extended interior monologue, through the visual medium of film.
The answer, obviously, is to get Olivia Colman. (This seems like the solution to many film and TV problems. The woman is just astonishing.) As the 48-year-old Leda, an English academic who has come to a Greek island for a vacation stay, Colman (Broadchurch, The Favourite, Fleabag, The Queen) conveys flashes of complex, sometimes contradictory emotions in a minimalist but moving evocation of maternal ambivalence.
Children are… a crushing responsibility, Leda says, seemingly by way of small talk, to a beach acquaintance who happens to be seven months pregnant. Thats quite an opener.
Leda herself, the mother of two grown daughters who have recently left home, seems euphoric but somewhat flummoxed by the unfamiliar experience of leisure and quiet. Her idyll of reading and writing is soon broken by the appearance on the beach of a big, brash extended American family. Its not just the noise and chaos that Leda finds disruptive. She becomes focused on Nina (Dakota Johnson from Fifty Shades of Grey) and her toddler daughter, Elena (Athena Martin Anderson), watching their interactions, both tender and fractious, with a gaze thats hard to parse.
When little Elena wanders away, it is Leda who finds her. It is also Leda who possessed by some wayward impulse that seems at first inexplicable to us, and even to Leda herself steals the childs beloved doll.
Leda keeps the doll, despite clear evidence that Elena is bereft without it, whining and wailing and clinging, and Nina is consequently even more harassed and sleep deprived. A friends warning that Ninas family are not good people, a coded reference to organized crime, and the barely banked violence of Ninas husband, suggest that Ledas actions are not just cruel, but possibly dangerous.
As we come to realize, Leda is using the doll to remember, even re-enact her own experiences as a young mother. In scenes that are more than just flashbacks, that offer another story running in parallel with an equally powerful and nuanced performance from Jessie Buckley (Im Thinking of Ending Things, Chernobyl), we see Leda as a 20-something academic trying to establish her career, living in a small apartment with a distracted husband and two small children.
Leda tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to balance her very palpable love for her daughters with her work, her sanity, her sense of herself.
She becomes fascinated by stories of men whove left behind families, just walked away, while she prepares detailed instructions on the childrens preferences, habits, schedules, foibles and favourite stuffed toys, as well as a fridge full of child-acceptable meals, before she can attend a conference for just a few days.
These are familiar Ferrante themes. The Italian writer is fascinated by those who leave and those who stay. Shes brutally frank about the taboo figure of the unnatural mother, as Leda calls herself at one point, the woman who struggles with the maternal self-sacrifice our culture demands.
Gyllenhaal, working with Johnson, Colman and Buckley, turns that into a concrete sense of the ordinary, everyday hardness of mothering. She offers an unsentimental picture of small children pushing and pulling, poking and slapping their moms, of mothers dealing with head-buzzing exhaustion and short tempers, of tantrums and tears.
There are the big emotions: the overwhelming love, the sheer joy of rolling around on the floor with your kids, the panic of losing track of them on the beach, even for a few moments. But mostly The Lost Daughter is about the in-between stuff, a rarely explored middle terrain that is crumb-covered, Lego-strewn, often wonderful and occasionally exasperating, tiring, boring. The Lost Daughter conveys, in a way films rarely do, the intimacy, the intensity, the immensity of caring for small children, of being their whole world.
Mothers in film tend to be either saintly and selfless or monstrous and malevolent. Leda, as portrayed by the wondrous Colman, is merely human. Many viewers, even if they dont understand all her actions, will recognize her feelings.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.