‘The Lost Daughter’ Is A Claustrophobic Exploration Of Motherhood: LFF Review

'The Lost Daughter' Is A Claustrophobic Exploration Of Motherhood

This film is being screened as part of the 2021 BFI London Film Festival and you can find all of our coverage of the festival here

Elena Ferrante’s novel exploring the challenges of motherhood is adapted for the screen in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s intense, psychological debut.


After years on the silver screen, Maggie Gyllenhaal has made the shift behind the camera for her directorial debut, The Lost Daughter. With an outstanding ensemble cast, anchored by one of Olivia Colman’s most interesting performances, what plays out is an utterly gripping, fascinatingly-told film.

The film follows Leda (Colman), a 48-year-old Italian Literature professor, as she spends time away from it all on a holiday by the sea in Greece. It’s as she sits on the beach that she notices young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her large, loud family. Immediately, Leda is enraptured by this woman. As Leda gets to know more of Nina, it brings back memories of the past, and her own struggles with motherhood. Leda reckons with these memories and past choices she has made, but this leads to her making some dangerous choices in the present: choices that inextricably tie her with the powerful and menacing family to which Nina belongs.

On paper, a lot of the narrative seems fairly plain and simple. A standard family drama, in which two women connect over the more difficult parts of motherhood that are so rarely shared with others. However, under Gyllenhaal’s direction, instead of a family drama, this plays like an intense psychological thriller. The film holds you in a tight grip, rarely letting up as it gently but consistently hikes up the tension.

When films are set on an island location such as this you’d expect the camera to linger on the sights. But here, Helene Louvart’s camera subverts this expectation entirely, the lens always sitting on the characters rather than the idyllic town behind them. We are forced to look at each character, to read their emotions on their face and in their body language, only being allowed to look away when the director gives us express permission. There is, in particular, a clear picture of Leda’s isolation painted through the camera’s steady hold on her: we see how often she is on her own, and we see her lack of proximity to the others around her.

The cinematography only becomes more intense as the film begins to give us flashbacks to Leda’s younger years. These sequences are often shot extremely close up: the first instance we see is Leda hugging her daughters, but the camera is framed so tightly that we only see Leda’s face and shoulders, and the tops of her children’s heads. There is claustrophobia in this closeness, even when demonstrating Leda’s isolation. We are always on top of her, the way that she feels that everyone else is on top of her. Dickon Hinchcliffe’s soundtrack also adds to this building tension. The use of a jazz style score, and in particular the rap of a snare drum, both lures you into a sense of relaxation, whilst never holding you in that state for long.

Another way in which the film keeps you on your toes, is through its non-linear structure. Each flashback reveals more to you, and while you are learning about Leda in the present, it is only through the snippets of the past that it all comes together. In particular, it is these flashbacks that help you to understand the inherent similarities between herself and Nina. Of course, a lot of the brilliance of the flashback sequences come from Jessie Buckley, playing Olivia Colman’s younger self. The cohesion between the two versions of Leda is outstanding, with the mannerisms of both feeling seemingly fluid, as if the camera had genuinely managed to take Colman back in time to play her younger self.

There is cruelty and selfishness to Leda, and getting to see national treasure Colman be deeply unlikeable, is a chance to witness her extraordinary range.

Even more impressive, are these actresses’ ability to keep you on their side, even when their character’s actions are unjustifiable. There is cruelty and selfishness to Leda, and getting to see national treasure Colman be deeply unlikeable, is a chance to witness her extraordinary range. In contrast to this, where Buckley’s young mother is angry and negligent, Dakota Johnson as Nina just exudes genuine exasperation and desperation. You can see both mothers struggle as their fight against their lack of maternal instinct. It’s a fascinating exploration of womanhood, and from the way your empathy sways, it raises interesting questions about what mothers should and shouldn’t have to give up for the sake of their children.

While The Lost Daughter is firmly about women and motherhood, and so rightly gives central focus to the female cast, the male supporting characters are equally good when given their moment. In particular, Paul Mescal continues to show his ability at playing young men as authentically as possible, while Ed Harris brings a performance that feels as if it is present and overseeing the whole film.

What The Lost Daughter demonstrates, is that there is no clear line in knowing how to be a mother. It shows this through flawed, messy, and sometimes unsympathetic characters, but depicts them as no less worthy of our attention or understanding.

The Verdict

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut is a fascinating insight into motherhood for unnatural mothers. It holds you in a tight grip, constantly fearing for the protagonist’s safety, even when you aren’t rooting for her. The Lost Daughter promises great things for Gyllenhaal’s directorial career and continues to highlight Colman, Buckley and Johnson as women to watch.

Words by Rehana Nurmahi

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