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ZURICH 2021

Review: The Lost Daughter

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- Maggie Gyllenhaal tackles one of society’s biggest taboos in her stunning, disturbing directorial debut: mothers who may, or may not, regret having children

Review: The Lost Daughter
Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson in The Lost Daughter

There is no questioning Maggie Gyllenhaal’s tenacity, as instead of flying low with her directorial debut, she went for the best actors and the hottest writer in the guise of My Brilliant Friend scribe Elena Ferrante, on whose novel The Lost Daughter is based. Now making its way to the Zurich Film Festival after it earned Gyllenhaal the Best Screenplay gong at Venice, it’s one of those strangely unnerving stories unravelling not in the darkness, but under the sizzling sun, as it’s vacation time for professor Leda, apparently named after a Yeats poem (Olivia Colman). She is alone, so she observes what’s around her almost too closely and is especially taken by young mum Nina (Dakota Johnson, looking somewhat Jersey Shore-ish, in the best possible way).

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It’s almost funny that motherhood can generate PTSD in this film, as Leda soon starts to remember her own early days with her two daughters, exhausting her and devouring every ounce of the time she wanted to devote to herself. This is not another sweet take on the “rewards” that come with having a child. Here, the reality is just brutal.

It might be the memories, or it might be the sun, but Leda starts acting funny. Picking fights with Nina’s shady family, descending on the beach from their pink villa like a bunch of extremely loud Sopranos, she ends up stealing her baby girl’s doll. Her own daughter ruined her own, ages ago, although there is probably more to this instinctual gesture that she seems genuinely embarrassed by, or perhaps it’s one that grants her some perverse satisfaction. It’s as if her character was defined by little acts of defiance like this, or a short fuse, and Colman makes the most of it all. It’s an incredibly complex, hilariously awkward role she is gifted with here, as is Jessie Buckley, playing her much younger self: a woman (or, rather, women) constantly fighting for survival, be it on “working holidays” in Greece or at home, among all the screaming threatening her academic career and sanity. She’s even prickly enough to tell an expecting woman that “children are a crushing responsibility”, because somebody has to.

Men also come and go in the film (Ed Harris, Normal People’s Paul Mescal), but they barely register, with the most interesting – or the oddest – confrontations reserved for Gyllenhaal’s female cast. It’s wonderful that nobody here is just one thing, not just “a mother”, “a lover” or “a wife”, all melting in the heat and melting down. If this is just the beginning for Gyllenhaal the director, it’s almost scary to think how deep she will dive next.

The Lost Daughter is a Greek-US-UK-Israeli co-production staged by Endeavor Content (which is also handling the world sales), Samuel Marshall Films, Pie Films and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It will be released by Netflix.

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