Actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s (The Dark Knight) directorial debut brings Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter to the big screen. Colman’s character Leda, a divorced professor of nearly-50, holidays in a remote Greece island as her adult daughters visit their father in Canada. Her idyllic peace is shaken when a large New York family, loud and brass, takeover of the beach Leda relaxes on. She feels almost threatened by them, especially when the heavily pregnant and dominating mother decides she is a nuisance – Leda refuses to move from her beach chair so the family can all sit together. This isn’t the most outlandish request to make to a stranger, but Leda’s rude boldness is just the beginning of her narcissistic actions that will lead the audience to either disliking her, or to believing she is the pinnacle of complicated female characterisation.
This two hour film navigates itself through past and present, between the holidaying middle-aged Leda and her much younger self (Jessie Buckley, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) who has to deal with her two small daughters whilst working as a professor. The flashbacks are triggered by Leda’s interest in a small girl and her mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), whose marriage into the large American family doesn’t stop her from feeling alone. Leda sees herself in Nina as she struggles with her tumultuous daughter, exactly as she struggled with her own two. Although, despite it being indicated that Leda’s memories are triggered by Nina, the similarities aren’t that apparent.
Johnson and Colman’s acting would’ve saved this film, if there was much to save. The slow set-up of the first quarter of the film produces a good intrigue into the characters and situation; the slow pacing in this regard worked for the story. It felt tight and succinct in its vagueness, but unfortunately became lost in it as it led nowhere. The tension build-up works initially but ultimately becomes pointless when nothing happens. Understandably Colman’s character is in a new space, surrounded by new people, most of whom appear to Leda as untrustworthy figures. She feels under threat by them, but that theme doesn’t mesh well enough with the themes of motherhood it’s exploring. Whilst motherhood itself is something new and frightening, the American family at the Greek resort didn’t do enough to navigate that.
The flashbacks to Buckley’s version of the unlikable Leda lose importance and intrigue when they seem to go off on a tangent. I couldn’t find myself connecting with neither her nor her older self due to the filmmaking, as the characters are arguably fairly interesting, just made to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Other reviewers believed this film is better understood by other mothers, but film should connect multiple audiences to its themes despite having no personal relation to it – that’s a sign of good filmmaking.
Gyllenhaal’s first directorial work genuinely exceeds other amateur’s in terms of cinematography and camerawork, using uncomfortably close-up shots of character’s faces to show the lack of clarity in their relationship aims with Leda; it’s just the use of slow pacing in the wrong areas that damage the tension that had been well built-up. The flashbacks of Buckley’s Leda also did nothing to further the characterisation of Colman’s Leda as there was disjointedness between the two. The characters themselves could’ve worked better together in an even more uncomfortable setting.