‘The Lost Daughter’ explores the psychology of an ‘unnatural mother’

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Photo: Netflix

To say that Netflix original films have been marred by a near perpetual state of ill repute would be something of an understatement. Indeed, the feature films that are offered on the streaming service are so infamous for their abysmal quality that cinephiles have long been using the term “Netflix movie” to describe any vapid, uninspired picture. Only in the past year has Netflix made significant strides to demonstrate that it is just as capable of producing remarkable cinematic works as any traditional Hollywood studio, with films such as Jane Champion’s “The Power of the Dog” and Rebecca Hall’s “Passing”. However, it’s the platform’s latest psychological drama that shines as the greatest sign of hope for the future of film on Netflix. “The Lost Daughter” is a quiet, complex character study that assembles a stunning cast in service of a harrowing story about the struggles of motherhood.

 

The film revolves around Leda (Olivia Coleman), a middle-aged divorcee devoted to her work as as a college professor vacationing on a Greek island while her two adult daughters are off visiting their father. But after a few days of calm seaside reading, a rambunctious family of Greek Americans on holiday arrive on the same beach as her, disturbing her serenity. She soon becomes intensely fascinated by the relationship between two members of the family, a mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter. As she gets to know the two, she begins to confront the memories of the troubled past she has with her own children and the unconventional choices she made as a mother, and the consequences they had for herself and her family. There’s a unmistakable sense of dread that pervades the film from the opening scene. It isn’t a singular event that creates thus atmosphere of foreboding, but a hundred little details. A strained interaction between Leda and the caretaker of the house she’s renting (Ed Harris) , a bowl of fruit that are revealed to be rotten, Dickon Hinchliffe’s subtly melancholic score, the spectral sound of a foghorn waking Leda on her the first morning of vacation.

 

“The Lost Daughter” is the first film directed by longtime actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who illustrates a cinematic virtuosity rarely seen in a debut feature. Gyllenhaal’s stylistic direction denotes an apparent understanding of the most essential truth of adaptation: What works well on the page and what works well on the silver screen is fundamentally different. The film, which is based upon the 2006 novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante, reinterprets its source material for a visual medium while capturing the essence of the book exceedingly well. Ferrante’s novel is not one that easily lends itself to adaptation because of it’s first person narrative, which books are far better equipped to tell than film. Literary cinema has always been plagued by the quandaries that inevitably arise when an artistic work is translated from the written word to the screen. Undoubtedly the film’s greatest shortcoming is its own inability to directly adapt Leda’s ideas, perceptions, and emotions, which are voiced so decisively in the book. The intellectual poignance of the narrative is curtailed by the necessity of replacing narrative voice with dramatic depiction. Nevertheless, the film’s visual language, as constructed Gyllenhaal and cinematographer Héléne Louvart, places the audience as near to Leda’s emotional headspace as the medium allows. The film prioritizes subjectivity at every turn, using point of view shots, hand-held cameras situated directly behind Coleman, and an almost excessive number of close-ups to evoke the immediate, even visceral emotional reactions that Leda is having to the events and characters she experiences throughout the runtime.

 

The film is just as much a showcase for the abilities of its formidable cast as it is for Gyllenhaal’s directorial prowess. Olivia Coleman’s ingenious performance, which already has observers whispering about the possibility of a Best Actress win at the upcoming Oscars, is absolutely essential to the cohesion of the film. The issue here is that Leda is a very unconventional protagonist. Her behavior could be interpreted as erratic, and the narrative framing dogmatically keeps the audience at arms length, hinting at, but never truly revealing the reasoning that underlies her decisions. The looming possibility that she will be uncompelling lies around every corner, yet Coleman brings such a distinct sense of humanity to Leda that you cannot help but be enthralled in the journey of the character. Dakota Johnson is equally suited to the role of Nina, a mother that is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with her life, and her interactions with Coleman are what begins to painstakingly reveal the unsettling past that haunts Leda. Ed Harris is a breath of fresh air as the kindly caretaker, Paul Mescal exudes youthful energy as the attendant Will, and Jessie Buckley shines as a younger Leda in an extensive series of flashbacks that occur throughout the film. Gyllenhaal’s decision to cast her own husband as the seductive professor that young Leda has an affair with at an academic conference in a flashback also warrants a mention.

There’s something distinctively feminine about the story of “The Lost Daughter”. Sure, it’s directed by a woman, based upon a novel written by a woman, and centers around women, but it runs far deeper than that. Nearly every man in the story traverses it fleetingly, yet the sense of foreboding that accompanies living in a society that is shaped by the desires, expectations, and impositions of men is omnipresent. At its heart, it’s an unapologetically vivid portrait of the kind of woman that society considers to be repulsive: The distant, self-interested mother who does not flourish, but instead struggles under the crushing responsibility of being a parent. In a world where the virtues of motherhood are heralded from on high, this film dares to shine a light on a complex woman for whom motherhood did not bring self-actualization. Through its decision to focus on this self-described “unnatural mother”, the film deconstructs our cultural narrative that parenting will come naturally to mothers. This may expose the film to the scorn of some audience members who reject its protagonist for not being “likable” enough, yet I cannot help but feel that certain viewers might just find some part of themselves reflected back at them from this painful, fascinating portrayal of a woman attempting to carve out her place in the world outside of her role as a mother.