Film & Television

The Crushing Responsibility of Motherhood in
‘The Lost Daughter’

The movie industry, historically dominated by men, has had a bad habit of polarizing its female characters. (And this dichotomization is by no means limited to Hollywood; it goes back further. Early mythology and religions are rife with it too.) A woman is either a virgin or a whore, a saint or a sinner. Onscreen, she’s Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett or Melanie, The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy or the Wicked Witch, or Fatal Attraction’s Beth Gallagher or Alex Forrest. Even Amazon’s fairly recent The Pursuit of Love categorized its main characters as “stickers” (women who stay with husband and home) and “bolters” (those who leave to pursue their own desires).

If cinema’s women have limited options, mothers, specifically, have it even worse. Countless movies have been made about good mothers, willing to sacrifice for their children (Mildred Pierce, Steel Magnolias, Little Women, Room, both Mamma Mias), and at least as many have been made about mothers who are monsters (Carrie, Mommie Dearest, The Graduate — even, in its own twisted way, Psycho). In fact, these movies are often the most fun to watch because the concept of the malevolent or just self-centered mother is so alien to us, goes so against what we consider to be the natural order of things, that the films can’t help but be extraordinarily entertaining in one way or another.

What’s more rare, and exponentially more interesting, are films that reflect the full spectrum of motherhood, from dizzying love to what Leda in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s new movie The Lost Daughter calls “crushing responsibility.”

The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal’s impressive debut as director and screenwriter, is based on Elena Ferrante’s novella about a chance encounter with a younger mother that brings back memories, good and bad, for a middle-aged woman. If this sounds fairly uneventful, it is. But it’s also both tense and intense, deeply sad, often disturbing, and somehow mesmerizing.

The movie begins with a beach scene at night. A woman in white staggers along the shore, finally collapsing at the surf’s edge. Her presence and condition are a mystery, and the film backtracks to days (or weeks) before. A Harvard professor, Leda (the always excellent Oscar- and Emmy-winner Olivia Colman, The Favourite, The Crown), arrives on a Greek island for a working holiday. With the help of wiry handyman Lyle (Ed Harris), she settles into a fairly rustic apartment and is poised to enjoy the beach, her books, an ice pop, and blessed solitude.

Her peaceful seclusion is shattered by the arrival of a boisterous extended family of Greek Americans (“from Queens”). Leda’s reaction ranges from irritation to defiance to kindly advice and aid. She refuses to move her lounge chair for their convenience, which delights the young Irish beach worker Will (Paul Mescal), even as he warns her, “Don’t do that again. They’re bad people.”

The family includes multiple generations of tough guys (an adolescent version spews profanity at her when Leda won’t accommodate their request to move her chair), a brassy and very pregnant de facto matriarch, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), and a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), frustrated by the demands of her small daughter, Elena. Watching them, Leda recalls her own experiences with daughters Bianca and Martha.

In the flashback sequences, and there are many, Leda is played by Jessie Buckley (Misbehavior, Judy) and her husband, Joe, by Jack Farthing (Poldark, Spencer). Their daughters are adorable, but needy. Young Leda alternates between smothering them with embraces and screaming at them to leave her alone. They play games and act out private rituals, chanting as Leda cuts an orange peel in a single snaking coil. But as Leda, a graduate student, attempts to study or write, she blocks them out with headphones and cruelty. The scenes are at once fascinating (Buckley turns in a raw and tremendous performance) and loathsome. Eventually, Leda is lured into an affair with another academic (Gyllenhaal’s real-life husband, Peter Sarsgaard) and leaves her family for a few years. Although she does come back (“I was a mother,” she shrugs), a few years is a lifetime when the abandoned children are but a few years old themselves.

On the one hand, it’s easy to condemn Leda. On the other, Joe has no qualms about bringing the girls to Leda’s mother when Leda leaves. The burden of parenthood is firmly and solely women’s work. When it suits her, the present-day Leda is liberal with maternal advice and observations. Nina loses Elena at the beach, triggering a frantic search, and Leda calmly and methodically finds her. But even that act, for which the family is grateful, is balanced out by a bizarre act of theft. “I’m an unnatural mother,” she later tells Nina, matter-of-factly even as she incriminates herself.  

There’s a sense of danger and eroticism throughout the movie. Younger Leda’s sexual self is at odds with her responsibilities as a mother. Older Leda flirts with both Will and Lyle. And a potential affair between Nina and Will both angers and excites Leda. Colman’s remarkable screen presence is magnetic, although Leda’s behavior is difficult to predict. She will surely be nominated for another Oscar, and my hope is that Gyllenhaal will too.

As an actor herself, Gyllenhaal worked closely with her fine cast to bring Ferrante’s characters to life. Buckley and the two girls who play her daughters wrote the little song they sing when peeling the orange. “I believe in actors with ideas,” Gyllenhaal told NPR in a recent interview.

The main idea, if there is one, however, is that motherhood is not a simple equation of love or hate, good or bad. Motherhood is by its nature a messy business. 

Gyllenhaal explains, “I think it’s very difficult, even for adults, to hold the ambivalence of parents and mothers in their mind. And so, I think we’ve seen lots of films and television shows where the spectrum of what’s normal is pretty slim. And, in fact, I think despair, terrible anxiety, confusion, along with the kind of heart-wrenching ecstasy is all a part of the spectrum of normal. There’s a whole tradition of movies about crazy women by great directors with phenomenal actresses . . . there’s some fascination with watching very interesting, powerful women go crazy. This movie is not that. This movie is about offering and challenging the audience to see if, as sane people, we can relate to her.”

Ultimately, Gyllenhaal strives for honesty. “A woman as a lover, a woman as a thinker, a woman as an artist . . . I found it both disturbing sometimes and also comforting to feel like maybe I’m not alone with these things. There’s something inherently dramatic, inherently compelling about being told the truth.”

Even if the truth is sometimes hard to watch.

The Lost Daughter is available in movie theaters and to stream on Netflix.


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