Leda, a middle-aged comp-lit professor, arrives at a lavish Greek island accompanied solely by her books. Played by an overwrought Olivia Colman, she frets and wanders around on her own, parrying every attempt to be engaged in social interactions by the locals. It is on the swelling consequences of her temerity that The Lost Daughter places its gravitational weight. As a luxury that few first-time directors can afford, Maggie Gyllenhaal relies on Award-winning actors such as Colman and Jessie Buckley, who portrays a much younger Leda, to imbue the novelistic narrative with emotional dew.
Most importantly, the script is based on Elena Ferrante’s 2006 book of the same name. The pseudonymous author has carved herself a reputation for phrasing disquieting truths about female generational trauma in vivid and poetic ways. In Gyllenhaal’s screenplay rendition of the novel, some (but not all) lines of dialogue break off the light and snappy tempo with a puncturing elegance that also retains Ferrante’s idiosyncratic sensibility.
Even though the film wrestles with the story’s flashbacks, by its second act it not only manages to parallel past and present timelines but also to enliven Leda’s recollected images, swapping their literal value for acute emotional affect. A present encounter with Nina (Dakota Johnson) who has lost her daughter on the beach manifests a string of associatively edited memories for Leda, who, earlier in her life, had also lost her own Bianca on a secluded beach. A chance meeting brings Leda (despite her efforts to resist) closer to Nina’s big boisterous family, for whom the island is a second home.
Events of all kinds seem to bring Leda back to a bygone time: be it a doodled doll, a curse word uttered out of powerlessness, or a glance at an extramarital affair. Everything that Leda sees, bounces back at her and the extended memory sequences function like reverse shots in regard to the things she’d just witnessed. Even if such a directorial decision sets Gyllenhaal up for a rather chaotic and illegible narrative structure, Colman and Buckley’s proficiency at playing expansive female characters in a rut prolonged the film’s emotive after-effects.
The film itself, composed of silent glances, lots of voyeurism, and occasional, but necessarily loud exchanges, works well as a stand-alone piece because of Hélène Louvart’s (Happy as Lazzaro) feverish use of handheld and dollies and Dickon Hinchliffe’s unhinged string and piano compositions. Judging by the affecting qualities of these audio-visual means, the film’s aesthetic is a good fit for Ferrante’s heart-rending observations on the cycles of psychological damage (unwillingly) perpetuated by familial love. Outbursts seem formative for any social situation in The Lost Daughter, where girls and women, daughters and mothers are often shown at their worst. Petulant children, impatient mothers, jealousy and ineffable disappointments are just some of the instances covered by Gyllenhaal’s debut and it seems she’s a firm believer in voicing out the uncomfortable truths about a person’s many social roles.
In the film, Leda is not Neapolitan-born but comes from Leeds, which brings the character closer to Colman’s own disposition (and accent), but the role of Italian language is not entirely sidelined in this English-speaking production. Italian is present not as the specific Neapolitan dialect – a recurring theme in all of Ferrante’s works – but as the lingua franca of love and acceptance within the film world. Through the flashbacks we learn that Leda’s scholarly success as a translator for Auden and Yates in Italian brought her to the passionate lover, Professor Brady. Peter Sarsgaard embodies the quintessence of a handsome academic, whose presence amplified Leda’s desire to leave her family behind and unapologetically pursue a solitary life.
By empowering its female characters with ruthless honesty, the film also leaves room for self-doubt – a feature of authenticity which could potentially make up for the plot’s unevenness. Despite its inconsistencies, The Lost Daughter remains an impressively strong debut that is daring enough to call into question any given assumption regarding its protagonists. Maintaining such powerful ambivalence is an achievement of the highest order that also ties together the many brilliant collaborations that have shaped the film as it is.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release The Lost Daughter in select theaters on December 17 and globally on Netflix December 31.
Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix