The most obvious appeal of The Lost Daughter is as a directorial debut. It is an assured first feature from Maggie Gyllenhaal, an excellent first impression that ensures even greater interest in what is to come. Beyond this, though, the film continues to fascinate. It is a story that, on paper, may sound typical. We focus on middle-aged woman, and mother of adult children, Leda (the always excellent Olivia Colman) as she holidays on a Greek Island. It is a bifurcated narrative in which we see young Leda in flashback (played by Jessie Buckley), thus creating a seemingly conventional structure where we see two sides of motherhood: raising children and the reality of life when these children are no longer children.
However, The Lost Daughter is never quite typical (though it does knowingly intertwine itself with known tropes). The split narrative is less of a traditional comment on motherhood and more of a view of how this role, and its expectations, are put onto women. Our character exists in two timelines, the overt narrative function is for one to inform the other (the film is played out as a mystery, in which the backstory fills in the gaps in characterisation that exist in the present), but the wider purpose is to show continuity. Past and present are placed together to show a lack of change, or to show a wider cyclicality. At both points, motherhood is used as definitional and thrown onto our character, an expectation not pushed onto the film’s men who are defined by their relative absences. There are notable male characters here but they are notable mainly due how they are pushed to the side and allowed to live at the edge of a female centred drama.
Frequently, Leda is either framed (by others or herself) as an unnatural and inadequate mother. This, of course, opens up a wider question about expectation. It is a film with fathers as well as mothers, but these fathers are allowed to come and go like the tides. The Greek Island setting feels purposeful here, a sought isolation adds to characterisation for Leda (a foreign location where she resides, ostensibly, alone underscores her ostracisation). The film’s imagery returns to the sea, though. The beach is a persistent scene, staring out to sea with longing eyes is part of it but the repetition of the shores is something else. One male partner, not of Leda, occasionally arrives on a boat (though is often still presented in the rear of the frame). His appearances follow this pattern; in the visual language of the film, he is an intruder. Yet, he is a father, coming to greet his partner and daughter. He doesn’t seem like a natural father, neither does Leda’s partner in the past, but this thought never occurs to them and is never pushed upon them. Leda’s femininity places her as the island; these men are the sea, at the edge (and often out of sight) but ultimately overwhelming, and defining.
This flashback structure is easy to critique on a narrative level. It perhaps makes things too neat (and the film feels like it misses a trick at the end to further complicate things) but, while the flashbacks may over define on a narrative level, their wider purpose is brilliant. Communicating a life defined by the past through the constant interjections of the past is really powerful, but so are the cyclical displays. Over time, the film’s focus reveals itself to be a look at suffocating misogyny, and the flashbacks bring in concrete examples to paint the wider picture. The echoing narratives become the point, as a family also visiting the island start to express a narrative arc with similar themes to both Leda’s present and past. It all feels very intentional, and very additive. It also feels vey cerebral. This is a literary adaptation that maintains a literary feel while also feeling truly filmic, in which the language of cinema is in full force.
The cinematography specifically shines, in which Director of Photographer Hélène Louvart reasserts her brilliance. The approach is reminiscent of what she also achieved with Eliza Hittman on Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020). It is an excellent capturing of a feminine gaze, or of the feminine as gazed at, but it is also so notable due to what it excludes. Where other cinematographers focus on beautiful framing, of how to keep elements artistically in the shot, Louvart knows just what to obscure or excise. What is cut off by the frame, left on the outside or kept in the distance is so deeply important. It all adds to a film about conflict, distance and wider cultural exclusions. Bodies are so frequently only partially caught by the frame, or left out of focus, the idea of something cut off or missing being beautifully conveyed. But, at each point, the film is still beautiful; still cinematic.
Performances also shine. Colman has a very difficult role, having to say and do things that are very conventionally shocking. She is such an atypical mother, which is vital. But, her always perfect acting allows her to glean laughs and catharsis out of moments that should shock. It is an effortless balancing act that makes the film. We need to be sold on Leda, we need to be compelled and interested in her for the film’s messaging to work. But she also needs to be abrasive, she needs to defy expectations and genuinely transgress. Colman manages to do this while always seeming charming, focusing the blame on the societal rather than the personal. Jessie Buckley is also very good, giving a performance that has just enough of a grasp on Colman’s mannerisms while never feeling beholden to imitation.
For some, The Lost Daughter may not wholly satisfy. Its beginning ambiguities are given an overt clarity in which, perhaps, too much is ultimately shown and told. Yet, in doing this, the thematic and intentional comes to the fore. This is a deeply intelligent film with vital observations about masculinity and femininity, and what parenthood means in this forced (though ultimately false) binary. The narrative is an excuse to show us the cycles, the repetitions and how women start to feel like tertiary characters in their own stories, even when the men are only at the side. It does this all very gently: a very mature and thoughtful work defined by real confidence.