The Lost Daughter (2021)

One of the big favourites to come out of the 2021 festival season was Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter. The film follows Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), a college professor who has ventured to Greece in order to finish her current project. Whilst there, she encounters Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who has come to the resort with her large family, who struggles to deal with the pressures of motherhood and what is expected of her in the role of mother and wife. The film is an intricate look into what it means to be a woman and the pressures that society puts on women. As Leda reflects on her own life, which we see in flashbacks with Young Leda (Jessie Buckley) and the decisions she has made over the years, the film’s dynamic shifts between drama and thriller as Leda begins to become more involved in Nina’s life and finds herself in a compromised situation.

The film is directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal in her debut which she also wrote, with the script based on the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante. From a technical standpoint, this film is beautifully made with captivating direction from Gyllenhaal, while the screenplay unfolds slowly, so we get to see what lies under Leda’s surface. The film starts in the present day as Leda stumbles on the beach at night and lies unconscious at the water edge before going into a flashback and showing the events that have led to this. Gyllenhaal has a brilliant understanding of the character, and the way that she conveys Leda’s struggles adds plenty of intensity that elevates this film into one that feels threatening and uncomfortable at times. As Leda becomes more involved in Nina’s life to the point where it becomes obsessive, she begins to become reflective and contemplates on her life while the current situation spirals out of control.

Olivia Colman is one of the best actresses working at the moment, and The Lost Daughter showcases her range and her ability to lead a character-driven film. Her performance as Leda is not only one of the best performances of the year and guaranteed to get her a slew of award nominations. The character of Leda is brilliantly written, and Colman proves to be fantastic casting. Colman’s Leda is an accumulation of the decisions that we see through the flashback scenes, so her performance feels more rewarding the more we learn about the character. Colman’s performance is nuanced and makes this film as brilliant as it is. We may not understand why Leda does certain things and why she chooses to do them, but it is this unpredictability that makes The Lost Daughter such a gripping film from beginning to end.

The film revolves around Leda and her life leading up to the present day and beautifully merges flashbacks that show her journey and success. Playing Young Leda is Jessie Buckley, another actress who has risen up the ranks in recent years and another example of perfect casting. Young Leda’s life is inundated with chaos as she tries to juggle her studies with caring for her young daughters, Bianca and Martha, meaning that Buckley’s performance is more expressive as we see the physical and mental strain that her life has taken. Leda’s relationship with her young daughters is highly turbulent, and she begins to enjoy the time she gets to spend away from them, eventually leaving them to pursue her academic career. Buckley’s performance complements Colman’s perfectly as they capture Leda’s personality flawlessly in a way that feels seamless.

Dakota Johnson plays Nina in a role that may be small but has a huge impact on the film. Marking a career best for Johnson, Nina is a woman who struggles between living a life that she wants and the one that is expected of her by her family and society at whole. Nina is on holiday with her daughter, Elena, and family, while her husband flits in and out due to work. When Elena goes missing, things become chaotic and Nina begins to doubt her role as a mother. After Leda finds Elena and returns her, Nina becomes indebted to Leda and wants to get to know her, but is kept at arm’s length. When we see Nina, it is usually from Leda’s standpoint as an observer, as we see her struggle to be a good mother and wife. Johnson really excels in her final scene, in which she confronts Leda as the latter admits that she stole Elena’s doll. What Johnson does excellently in the film is put across Nina’s inexperience and her desire to find control of her own life rather than having others control it.

One of the most striking elements of The Lost Daughter is Dickon Hinchliffe’s score, which has a blues sound to it. The opening track “Leda” is a wonderfully dynamic piece that thrusts the audience into the location and escapism of the film. Leda has gone to Greece to finish her work and relax, and this track perfectly accompanies this. What Hinchliffe manages to capture is Leda’s wonderment and the freedom she has, which is then contrasted with quieter pieces that are more drawn out during the flashbacks to capture how Leda is trapped in a life that was expected of her but one that she doesn’t really want. The contrast between musical styles is a great way of portraying the many sides of Leda’s personality, and accompanies her journey perfectly.

The Lost Daughter is a masterclass in subtlety. It doesn’t need to have bells and whistles to show off the craftsmanship of the script and direction, while providing stellar performances all around, especially from Colman. It’s an intricate character study following Leda’s life and the sacrifices she has made to get where she is while also drawing parallels with Nina. The slow pace of the film works beautifully as it goes hand in hand with the vacation aspect. What is really fantastic about The Lost Daughter is that it subtly plays with the thriller tone, without actually exposing any threat, but we feel Leda’s fear. Maggie Gyllenhaal absolutely hit it out of the park with her debut, and it’s exciting to see what she does next.

What did you think of The Lost Daughter? Let me know in the comments below!

The Lost Daughter is available to stream on Netflix now!


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