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The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter

Everyone has fun on a Shirley Valentine-like holiday

dir: Maggie Gyllenhaal

2021

Is there anything the Gyllenhaals can’t do? When they’re not wowing audiences with their intense acting, or stealing red scarves from Taylor Swift and keeping them long after the relationship has ended, now they’re also directing intense dramas and probably getting ridiculous amounts of awards and stuff.

Maggie Gyllenhaal elects to write and direct here, adapting a novel by Elena Ferrante, being The Lost Daughter and not, as I initially thought, an adaptation of the fourth Neapolitan novel The Story of the Lost Child. She does not elect to star in it, instead letting Olivia Colman take centre stage, to the film’s benefit. Gyllenhaal is a fine actor, but Colman has this way of getting mean peevishness across with very little effort. She did it so effortlessly and coldly on The Crown as Queen Betty for two years, so why wouldn’t she bring those Ever So British skills to bear here?

Very much like the Neapolitan novels, it’s about a woman who’s an intellectual and an academic, who had kids, and felt pretty unimpressed with the experience. Present are the elements to do with maternal ambivalence towards one’s own children and not wanting to be classified as a mother to the exclusion of one’s other professional, personal or artistic pursuits. Absent are the elements to do with growing up in poverty in a mafia run town, or the intense rivalry between two childhood friends.

It’s something most mums are reluctant to admit, I’m guessing, unless they feel like they’re in a safe space or have had a few too many chardonnays. The mother who isn’t completely enraptured by kids, or who doesn’t feel comfortable maintaining the illusion that having kids changes everything positively about what you want out of life is still a touchy subject that usually results in the woman daring to say it in essays or fiction as heartless, selfish monsters.

Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) never lies to people about how she feels about motherhood. “Children are…a crushing responsibility” she says to a pregnant woman at one point. Very patiently, over the course of the film, Leda’s relationship with motherhood, and what she did to her children, is teased out, but mostly it’s used as a backdrop to partially explain why she’s standoffish and prefers to be isolated even as she holidays alone on the Greek island of Spetses.

The thing about holidays is, no matter where you go, other arseholes always turn up. And a huge bunch of loud Americans appear, among them a young woman (Dakota Johnson) with a toddler daughter. The way the mother seems to swing between wanting to be a good mother to her angelic, annoying child, and seeming to want some freedom from her as well, reminds Leda of what were clearly her struggles when her own daughters were younger.

We get to see Leda as a younger woman with a pair of kids being so deliberately annoying you know this is somewhat a heightened depiction of how oppressive kids can feel sometimes, especially when you know it’s down to you. Other people will say they’re happy to help, but there’s judgement there too.

It’s down to you, all of the time.

At no stage does Leda say almost anything positive about being a mum, but there is perversely a keen sense that she loves her daughters, especially Bianca, who seems to be the more annoying one when they’re young. They’re now adults, but we never see them. They’re imagined presences on the other end of a phone. Leda is alone, and with good reason.

The two timelines proceed towards very different outcomes: Leda in the past (played by Jessie Buckley) is shown struggling to balance her professional and personal pursuits and maintain her sanity in the face of her children’s neediness. There is nothing coincidental, or offhand, about the inclusion of the scene where the daughter cuts her finger and desperately wishes for a kiss on her finger, with the mum resolutely determined to refuse, just to retain a part of herself that she feels is being consumed.

Despite what appears like willful neglect, she is incredibly over-invested in keeping the kids safe and well-fed, and prepares everything they could possibly need for a week which she tells an increasingly baffled babysitter about before going to a fateful conference where she’s meant to deliver a paper and be lauded by the other guys with beards and such. Finally, a chance to breath.

Breath, and more. Earlier, some backpacking hikers pull up in front of their home, and the husband, who might as well be invisible, invites them in over Leda’s protestations.

But in them, especially in the Italian woman who’s twisted her ankle, she finds a delighted kindred spirit, one who delights in her recitation of poetry in Italian, with whom she clearly has an energy (I’m not implying it’s physical desire, but it’s definitely some form of passion), even if the thing she responds to the most is that she’s not her husband or her kids.

In the present, Leda isn’t here on this beach to make friends. Mostly, she keeps to herself, and when she does interact with other people, it’s polite but pointed. She refuses to make nice or accommodate others, especially when they’re being entitled jerks. At first she is inadvertently pulled in to the shenanigans of the other family, when the toddler goes missing, but that same day she does something almost inexplicable – she finds the missing girl, but at the same time steals her prized doll.

The doll going missing brings days and days of misery for the little girl, for the mum, and presumably for everyone who has to hear about it or hears the girl crying. Leda’s reasons for keeping it are mysterious. She sort of wants to get it back to the girl, but she also perversely likes depriving them of it, maybe she even enjoys the fact that she’s causing ructions in their vulgar family.

Maybe she likes the girl, maybe she resents the girl for reminding her of her failures to do with her own kids. We still don’t, for most of the flick, know what happened.

I say “thankfully”, because I’m glad it’s not something as dramatic and final as what happens in the other Ferrante novel The Story of the Lost Child, where a child goes missing and that’s it, no resolution. Here the big reveal is something far less permanent, but no less catastrophic for the people involved. It paints Leda, at least younger Leda, in a very unsympathetic light, but there is no fair, no gentle way to be honest about such feelings without even having the character tell other people she is either a monster or not a “natural mother”.

This stuff is hard. But it’s not rare, and it’s not definitive. It’s just not talked about often enough, because it’s more important to maintain the myth of perfect motherhood than embrace the reality. When mothers start talking about a lot of these issues, it’s simplified to being either a side effect of post partum depression or mental illness in general, rather than just being a desire for freedom, a way out, regret tempered with illusions of another grander life away from the life obstacles (kids).

So many scenes underline the feeling – the kids literally hitting (younger) Leda for her attention, the kids headbutting or holding onto her, never giving her even physical space. Plus, they won’t even let her masturbate in peace.

Older Leda in a toy shop sees the other young mum with the daughter, trying to console her with a replacement doll (Leda says to her, flat out, “that won’t work”), but the daughter, being held, refuses to be put down, refuses to unclasp her hands from around her mother’s neck, refuses at all to be a reasonable person, damned child!

It’s enough to make a viewer swear off ever having kids. Just to emphasise, Olivia Colman herself has a bunch of daughters. Gyllenhaal has two daughters. I don’t think anyone involved is saying “skip having kids – it’s Shit!” I think there’s a lot of real world experience being brought to bear in order to tell this story, without any sugar coating. Life is hard. Parenting is hard. Being a mum is hard.

Not like being a dad. That’s a doddle. Stick around, don’t tell too many dad jokes, change a nappy or two and they’ll treat you like the fucking patron saint of good blokes, even if you’re ripping open cans of bourbon and coke at 10 in the morning.

Of course Leda sees her younger self in this woman, but also resents her a bit. And when she sees the other woman perhaps walking down the path she herself walked down, which she doesn’t entirely regret, but she knows permanently damaged her relationship with her kids, what right does she have to tell her to do otherwise?

Performances, all around, including Dakota Johnson, are uniformly excellent, but that doesn’t meant they’re pleasant to watch. Much of the time it’s a tense and claustrophobic experience. A lot of the camera work emphasises close ups that are a little too close for comfort, deliberately.

The ending though… It’s harsh. I won’t spoil it completely, but someone acts out of rage towards the end, and though it seems minor, it’s gruesome. The book had someone being stabbed in the side (not a child, if you’re worried), but I have a feeling that Gyllenhaal opted for something much nastier, much, much worse. I don’t even have the words to describe what I’m pretty sure happened, but it leads to an ending somewhat ambiguous, somewhat open ended as to the ultimate fate of our protagonist, and her relationship with her daughters.

Can it be saved? Can she be saved? Can anyone be saved?

It’s hard to know. The Lost Daughter is somewhat harrowing, but it’s solid storytelling, even if there’s nothing fun about it. It’s sly and cunning, and ruthless, and brutally honest. Just as another view, I watched it with my partner, who is definitely a mum, and she hated it, utterly hated it and felt it was a complete and uncomfortable waste of her time.

8 times Olivia Colman has won Academy awards already for less is all I’m saying out of 10

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“How foolish to think you can tell your children about yourself before they're at least fifty. To ask to be seen by them as a person and not as a function. To say : I am your history, you begin from me, listen to me, it could be useful to you.” – how foolish indeed - The Lost Daughter

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