She plays Leda, a Leeds-born lecturer who travels from her home in Massachusetts to a paradisal island in Greece. She stays in a holiday house that boasts a lovely view of the utterly blue sea. It's clear she’s not planning on socialising with anyone, either. Even the kind old caretaker (played with such genuineness by Ed Harris) can't advance far with her, despite his sweet and affectionate attempts.
Leda finds a beach that’s silent and desolate except for the 24-year-old manager Will, played by the attractive and adorable Normal People star Paul Mescal (his first film role). But like the nightmares of any introverted tourist, a rapturous gaggle of people flood into Leda's space – all part of one self-entitled, obnoxious family from New York. When the especially irritating Callie (Dagmara Domincyk) asks her to move from her spot, Leda politely and brilliantly declines (again: inspirational).
Dakota Johnson stars as Nina. Photo: Panther/eOne
No matter what Leda does, she can’t escape the inevitability of other people. Colman captures that annoyance, the contrary need to please while repressing a more aggravated response. Where Leda could've been so mundane and lazily laced with passive-aggression, Colman creates a fascinating duality that gradually slips during the holiday.
But a couple of family members pique her curiosity: Nina (a depressed, conflicted Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter Elena. Leda voyeuristically watches Nina struggle with her child and her consistently absent husband (The Invisible Man's Oliver Jackson-Cohen, in another elusive, abusive role).
Despite avoiding them, Leda strays on the edge of this dodgy family. And then she does something that defies sense, an action that dwells in a middle-ground of cruelty. This critic won't spoil it here, but it's up for confused, intriguing interpretation.
Gyllenhaal’s precise foray into filmmaking is a strange, subtle character study. She gently follows Leda in this escapist environment, and then sifts through her troubled memories. Jessie Buckley is gruellingly good as Leda’s younger self, a few years into motherhood, portraying such aggressive boredom. Although Buckley tends to play women with mental issues – ranging from the anxiously damaged (Beast) to the cartoonishly psychotic (Fargo) – here the pain is more real, more understandable.
It shows not only Buckley’s eclectic talents, but Gyllenhaal’s astuteness as a director: she never forces an explosion. It’s also fascinating comparing the two versions of the same character. The younger Leda is clearly frightened her life is bleeding away, while present-day Leda has mostly accepted that her youth is gone and isn’t coming back.
With the My Brilliant Friend cinematographer Hélène Louvart, Gyllenhaal sticks close to Colman and her perspective – often shots are filled with skin, limbs, and smiles. It’s as if Leda is so dazed in the present, lost in her own mind, that outside reality verges on the dream-like. At the same time, Gyllenhaal maintains enough distance to make Leda’s exact thoughts a mystery.
There have been many comedies and dramas released in recent years that examine the pangs of parenthood (Motherland, The Cry). You can feel a similar need for release in The Lost Daughter. A terrifying fear of judgement buzzes around Leda: she finds it hard to admit her anguish of being a mother.
One gloriously tragicomic moment comes early on. Leda tells the annoyingly proud Callie, an expectant mother, that having children is a ‘crushing responsibility’. The dispiritingly high-pitched screams and cries of kids through the film, like hellish echoes, make it easy to see why. The Lost Daughter is a patiently soft film at times, but these brutal truths lend it such uncomfortable, ambiguous power.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2021. The Lost Daughter will be in UK cinemas on Friday 17 December and available on Netflix from Friday 31 December.
|What||The Lost Daughter review|
17 Dec 21 – 17 Dec 22, IN CINEMAS
31 Dec 21 – 31 Dec 22, ON NETFLIX
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