To adapt a book into a film is a difficult task that rarely translates well. If you add that the author is Elena Ferrante, an internationally successful writer who embraces utmost honesty, uncomfortable truths, and usually dissects feelings on a molecular level, things seem even more complicated. Maggie Gyllenhaal decided to make the jump from acting to directing using Ferrante’s novel “The Lost Daughter” as a foundation, and she also wrote the script. The film doesn’t religiously follow the book, but manages to capture the essence and tone of Ferrante’s world. That is quite rare.
The story follows Leda (Olivia Coleman) a middle-aged divorcee and language scholar who is vacationing alone on the Greek island of Spetses. Her quiet, relaxing time spent at the beach is disturbed by the arrival of a strange family with an entitled and aggressive attitude. It is implied they are part of a Mafia clan, and their presence is intimidating.
Among them Leda, notices and becomes fixated with Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mum dealing with a violent partner, and at times, struggling with her young daughter’s behavior. The disappearance of a doll is the catalyst of a flurry of memories that come rushing in. Suddenly, Leda must deal with unresolved problems from the past.
As a young poetry translator Leda (Jessie Buckley) struggled to balance her family obligations and responsibilities with her work aspirations. A series of events pushed her to the brink of despair, and she left both her young daughters and her husband for a few years. A fracture was created and a deep sense of guilt. It never went away.
Through the portraits of Leda—at two different stages of her life—and Nina, Gyllenhaal builds a complex and realistic depiction of motherhood and challenges conventional views on how we perceive that experience. Being a mother is not always a permanent state of joy and fulfillment, and there might be instances when it gets overwhelming. Mistakes are inevitable and so is an urge to escape it all. Leda confesses at one point in the film “I’m an unnatural mother”, giving voice to all the women who might have felt the same.
Gyllenhaal worked with a French cinematographer Helene Louvart, and her brilliant intuition and sense of intimacy is an important asset. Louvart’s previous projects include Happy as Lazzaro and Never Rarely Sometimes, two films that left a mark on me.
The Lost Daughter is a psychological drama that surprises us at every turn and is the perfect vehicle for Olivia Coleman, Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley. There is an emphasis on gestures and physicality in Olivia Coleman’s performance and that maintains a level of mystery as we discover her inner conflicts and dilemmas. All three performances are impressive. Also featured in the cast are Paul Mescal, Ed Harris and Peter Sarsgaard, who are great too. Gyllenhaal clearly knows how to write multi-dimensional characters and to create a safe environment that allows her cast to give it all.
At the same time the film carries all the emotions Ferrante masterfully brings to the surface in her books in a manner that is stripped of any filters.
Netflix acquired the distribution rights for The Lost Daughter in August, and the film premiered a month later at Venice Film Festival where it won the award for best screenplay. Since then it received recognition at Gotham Awards for best screenplay, best feature, best breakthrough director and outstanding performance for Olivia Coleman ,and was chosen as Best First Feature by New York Film Critics Circle. The film will have a limited theatrical release at the end of December and then it will be available on Netflix. Don’t miss it!