BFI London Film Festival presents The Lost Daughter in selected cinemas and on Netflix on December 31st.
Directorial debuts are always fascinating to watch unfold. They can be fantastic and launch a director into the cinematic stratosphere, like Julia Ducournau’s Raw or Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall. But, they can also be terrible, like Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II or the Strause Brothers’ Alien Vs Predator: Requiem. It’s often easier to make a debut with an original idea rather than a pre-established world or the adaptation of something into a cinematic format. The dangers of the latter are held in the reality that many works require a distinct, focused vision to encapsulate the author’s world correctly. Debuting as a director is about understanding yourself, so challenging oneself by reflecting someone else’s vision can topple even the best aspiring directors. Unfortunately, with The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal has been toppled.
The Lost Daughter, adapted from the Elena Ferrante novel of the same name, follows Olivia Colman’s Leda on holiday, her life slowly unravelling after meeting Dakota Johnson’s Nina. Colman’s performance is by no means bad, but it often feels like you’re merely watching Olivia Colman on holiday rather than Leda; perhaps this issue resides in us being unable to see past Olivia Colman. After all, it feels as though there’s little for her to disappear into due to the excessive flashbacks that Gyllenhaal uses to frame her character. It is within these flashbacks that we meet Jessie Buckley as the young Leda. Buckley’s brilliant performance houses a double narrative duty – expertly emulating the young Olivia Colman while also reflecting the gradual unravelling of a mother on the edge of a breakdown.
READ MORE: THE HARDER THEY FALL
Buckley is clearly a rising star, capturing Colman’s cadence and mannerisms as Leda and as herself. The Lost Daughter feels like a nuanced meditation on motherhood, opening a conversation beyond the typical on-screen representation. Here, motherhood is a dreaded anchor chained to Leda, weighing her down and keeping her stagnant as she attempts to hold onto her individuality. Here Leda’s fractured relationship with her daughters is the most intriguing cog in this psychological machine. But ironically, it rarely finds any elaboration beyond the flashbacks-upon-flashbacks offered. Surprisingly, there are also parallels between The Lost Daughter’s thematic base and Titane – both nuanced musings on motherhood that skew toward a suffocating and anchor-like discussion on experience. However, Titane ultimately does this better.
Unfortunately, we see little of the psychological consequences of young Leda’s actions on her present-day self. It’s remarkably unclear throughout what conflict Leda is facing. For example, is one of her daughters dead? Hence the title. And what exactly does the ‘lost’ in the film’s title mean?. This creates a frustrating narrative while equally making the protagonist hard to follow. Even Leda’s interactions with the island’s inhabitants are increasingly baffling, with little to no insight into her thoughts or feelings, the bewildering conclusion leaving us asking, ‘What? Why?’
READ MORE: TITANE
Gyllenhaal’s directing is entirely competent throughout, but there’s little more to say about it than that. There is also nothing wrong with the overall technical delivery of the film, but ultimately there is nothing that makes The Lost Daughter feel unique to Gyllenhaal. The resulting film feels like a paint-by-numbers outing; conversations have mid-shots followed by close-ups to signify the importance of their emotion, while the editing is linear and follows a general narrative structure. Come on, Maggie, give us some variety in your cinematography! The joys of working in psychological drama allow a director to play with perspective rather than using excessive flashbacks. Here we could have seen Leda’s memories bleed into her present while catching glimpses of herself from afar.
Because of Gyllenhaal’s ‘tell, don’t show’ aesthetic, The Lost Daughter often feels laboriously long. The original novel is only 160 pages long, allowing direct insight into Leda’s psyche; here, it’s the complete opposite. As mentioned previously, Gyllenhaal seems to believe that the psychological drama sub-genre allows her the luxury of conversations that go nowhere, teasing things that never occur. Even the flashbacks eventually seem to regurgitate pointless information about Leda’s past that has already found clarification. Whereas in many films of a similar genre, you’re excited by the fact that you are unsure where the story is taking you, The Lost Daughter has you praying for a moment where it gets to the point. This is a film that feels like it may be entering thriller territory, only to pull back.
In the hands of a more established director, it’s possible The Lost Daughter could have offered us something more thematically complicated. Unfortunately, Gyllenhaal simply doesn’t have the expertise necessary yet to tackle the project, and ironically, she ends up losing you in the process.