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 you to immediate acclaim, like Julia Ducournau’s Raw or Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, or they can be terrible, like Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II or the Strause Brothers’ Alien Vs Predator: Requiem. It’s often easier to debut an original idea rather than continue a pre-established world or adapt something into the cinematic format. The dangers of doing so are that some works require a distinct, focused vision in order to encapsulate their worlds properly. Debuting is about coming to understand yourself as a director, so attempting to challenge oneself by understanding someone else’s vision atop your own can topple you if you’re not careful. Unfortunately, Maggie Gyllenhaal has been toppled.
The Lost Daughter, adapted from the Elena Ferrante novel of the same name, follows Olivia Colman’s Leda during a holiday as her life unravels after meeting Dakota Johnson’s Nina, who acts as a reminder of her past. Colman’s performance is by no means bad, but it does feel like you’re merely watching Olivia Colman on holiday rather than Leda; perhaps the issue is being unable to see past Olivia Colman. It feels as though there’s little for her to disappear into due to the excessive flashbacks that Gyllenhaal incorporates. This is where Jessie Buckley appears as a young Leda, and it’s easily the best performance – Buckley performs double duty, expertly emulating both a young Olivia Colman and the gradual unravelling of a mother on the edge of a breakdown.
Buckley is clearly one of the rising stars of the past few years, capturing Colman’s cadence and mannerisms both as Leda and as herself. The Lost Daughter feels like a nuanced meditation on motherhood, opening the conversation beyond the typical on-screen representations we’ve seen before. Here, motherhood is a dreaded anchor chained to Leda, weighing her down and keeping her stagnant as she attempts to hold onto her individuality. Leda’s fractured relationship with her daughters is the most intriguing cog in this psychological machine, but ironically it’s rarely elaborated on beyond the flashbacks. Surprisingly, there are parallels between The Lost Daughter’s thematic exploration and Titane’s themes – both are nuanced musings on motherhood that skew toward the suffocating and anchor-like nature some endure. The difference is, Titane just does this better.
We see little of the psychological consequences of Young Leda’s actions on present Leda, aside from the occasional faint and discolouration. It’s remarkably unclear what the actual conflict Leda’s facing is – has one of her daughters died, hence the title? What exactly is meant by ‘lost’? Gyllenhaal never decides to tackle these questions, creating an immensely frustrating protagonist. Leda’s interactions with the island’s inhabitants are also increasingly baffling, as we’re given little-to-no insight into her thoughts or feelings.
Gyllenhaal’s direction is entirely competent, but there’s little more to say. There’s nothing bad in the technical elements, but there’s nothing unique either. Everything is by the numbers; conversations have mid-shots followed by close-ups to signify the importance of their emotion – the editing is linear and follows a general narrative structure. I mean, “Come on, Maggie, give us some variety!” The joys of working in psychological drama are that you get to play with perspective – rather than excessively flashbacking, perhaps we could’ve seen Leda’s memories bleed into her present, catching glimpses of herself from afar. The problem is¸The Lost Daughter needed something more than just competence; it needed expertise.
Because of Gyllenhaal’s ‘tell, don’t show’ attitude, The Lost Daughter also feels laboriously long. The original novel is only 160 pages and allows direct insight into Leda’s psyche; here, it’s the complete opposite. Even the flashbacks eventually seem to regurgitate pointless information as to Leda’s past that’s already been clarified. Whereas in many films of the same genre, you’re excited that you don’t know where it will lead, with The Lost Daughter, you’re praying that it knows what it’s trying to say and actually gets to a point. This is a 2-hour long film that feels 3 hours long.
In the hands of a more established director, The Lost Daughter could be something more remarkable and thematically complicated. Unfortunately, Gyllenhaal simply doesn’t have the expertise necessary yet to tackle such a project as this, and ironically, she ends up losing you.