Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s eponymous novel, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut feature The Lost Daughter is the ultimate subversion of motherhood. By raising various uncomfortable questions, the film does not allow the viewers to detract from the ruthless and ugly parts of our character, a factor that makes the characters in the film eerily relatable.
With voluminous silences, the claustrophobic movie is a brilliant and emotionally hefty exploration of chaos by the director, one that propels the lead, Olivia Colman, into the race for winning yet another Academy Award for her incredible portrayal of absurd anguish.
Colman plays Leda, an Italian Comparative Literature professor who goes for a working holiday to a picturesque Greek island. Leda is an obvious reference to Yeats’ Leda and the Swan, the recital of which actually marks Leda’s escape — but that comes much later. What we are met with at the onset of the film are Leda’s skittishness and strange nature. She hides behind her oversized sunglasses and we barely see her emoting through her eyes when alone.
Her quiet getaway is interrupted by the arrival of an influential and rowdy family. Leda is immediately smitten by a young woman in a bikini, later revealed to be Nina, played by Dakota Johnson, and her charming, blonde young daughter. By watching the mother-daughter duo engage in various activities on the beach, Leda is seen reminiscing about her past. Jessie Buckley, playing the younger version of Colman in the film, perfectly fits the rebellious and frazzled younger self of Leda. With a burgeoning career, her aspirations are stifled by an ambitious husband and two clingy daughters. Leda craves freedom, and her presence subverts the ideals of motherhood imposed by the patriarchal stereotypes.
Leda lets go of herself by having a raunchy affair with a famous and attractive scholar, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Her recognition of Nina’s frustration and anger at having to be at the beck and call of a toddler is further cemented by Nina and the beach boy’s secret affair. In Nina, Leda detects her past self while she is a reflection of Nina’s future. Leda’s strange demeanour further surprises us when we see her stealing the little girl’s doll, causing immense distress to the family. Was it her way of showing Nina how miserable life would be for an “unnatural mother”? Was she asking Nina to run while she still can? We can only surmise.
As soon as Colman’s character utters “I am an unnatural mother”, it sparks a major conversation. Even Gyllenhaal spoke at length about how she debated leaving this scene out of the film before, eventually, opting to include it. The inherently patriarchal society has conditioned women into being a particular kind of mother – careful, nurturing and warm – as reflected by the character, Callie, in the film. However, where do we place personalities like Nina and Leda who, quite frankly, are tired and exhausted and in need of desperate release?
Leda, daunted by the questions regarding her daughters, cannot seem to recollect anything special about their childhood. Her apprehension and unnerving tension come to a rest as the story gradually unveils, just like the oranges she peels in the film. In her audacious and alienating exploration of such a brilliant terrain, Gyllenhaal does not judge the characters for their choices. Instead, she is empathetic and delicate as she unfurls the various issues that compel women like Leda to abdicate the motherly duties imposed on them by society. In Nina, Leda sees a searing version of her younger self and constantly questions herself. Her defence mechanisms crumble as she is forced to travel back into the past and reflect on how she failed to be the mother she needed to be, thus becoming the “unnatural mother”.
With a string of brilliant performances, the silence in the film is almost deafening. It exposes the effect of being burdened by relationships, as portrayed by the unfiltered reaction to motherhood, exhibited by Johnson, Buckley and Colman. They do not understand the ways of the world and Gyllenhaal pacifies them, saying it’s completely OK to have their own set of ideas, despite being under the constant scrutiny of the world.
The distress and tension are unabashed and palpable and the film sees Colman at her finest. An Oscar for her performance would not only honour the lost daughters of the world but also champion the cause of the “unnatural mother”.