The Lost Daughter – the wounds of Motherhood

Dave Kellaway reviews The Lost Daughter, starring Olivia Coleman and Jessie Buckley (2021)


Review contains spoilers.

This film starts and ends with the same scene on a beach where Leda the protagonist lies at the edge of the water with a wound in her stomach. The film goes back to follow her journey to this point. The story is neatly woven together as the action toggles between the present and the past. Olivia Colman plays the mother in the present and Jessie Buckley when younger. Both are superb, convincing performances

Not a lot of dramatic action happens but the plot works and keeps us involved because we are never quite clear until the end what the ‘lost’ daughter actually means. Even then the film deliberately gives us no easy answers.

What is painfully shown is how women are assigned the sometimes suffocating, physical and psychological burden of motherhood in our society. Not many films are made about this and it is not often discussed.

The film is derived from a book of the same name written by one of the greatest contemporary writers on the feminine condition – Elena Ferrante, writer of the four book series on the friendship between two Neapolitan women (My Brilliant Friend...). Such source material means the dialogue is very authentic and emotionally complex and engaging. However the film unfolds just as much through the silences, the physical expressions and gestures of the main characters. A number of scenes do not have a great deal of dialogue or the words form a background noise – the love scenes of the young Leda and the later encounter between present day Leda and the local, older caretaker work in this way.

What is painfully shown is how women are assigned the sometimes suffocating, physical and psychological burden of motherhood in our society.

Leda goes on holiday on her own to a Greek island (the one that Leonard Cohen made famous) and befriends Nina who is struggling to always respond positively with her child in the same way that Leda did. Leda found her exclusive nurturing of her children was holding back both her career and her chance of a more fulfilling emotional life. She left them for a few years and then returned.

Leda resists a culturally constructed model of mothering but loves her kids. Motherhood’s demands do not ever end as we see right up to the last scene when she is on the phone to her daughter, peeling an orange. Her children loved the way she made snake shapes out of the orange peel. Now she is perhaps peeling the orange for herself.

One day Nina’s daughter is actually lost on the beach. Leda finds her but then steals her beloved doll. The doll becomes both a symbol of her own torment over her conflicted sense of motherhood and a material element of the plot. Dolls are given to young girls and forms part of the cultural preparation they undergo for a nurturing role. We see Leda dressing and cleaning the doll and then putting it out of sight. Great cinema works visually, wordlessly in these scenes. When Leda gives the doll back it leads on to the final denouement.

Earlier on Nina has an exchange with the older Leda  asking her whether the difficulties of bringing up her daughter will pass. She responds:

You’re so young and it doesn’t pass. None of this passes

Kayti Burt in an insightful review comments:

That this won’t pass. Not ever. Not with the way society is structured, with different rules and expectations for fathers versus mothers. Not with the way society expects women to martyr themselves on the altar of motherhood, and not to have complicated feelings about the sacrifices that entails.

Nurturing is not evil or bad it is just that in our society it is nearly always expected to be more the mother’s that the father’s role. This is captured well in a scene where the young Leda and the mother are both engrossed in their professional work at home but it is Leda who has to drop everything and deal with the demand of the child.

Do not expect a thriller or a conventional psychological drama.  It is a film that will move you and make you think.

The treatment of this issue is particularly original precisely because this type of family movie genre is often melodramatic or over violent. The banality and ordinariness of how this form of oppression can be experienced by women is shown very effectively. Casting Olivia Coleman was very astute as she is far from a conventional glamorous film star but can play a woman everyone can relate to.

The film is a directing debut by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal who is well known for her roles in the Secretary, Crazy Heart and the Dark Knight. She is already being nominated for awards for The Lost Daughter.  A recent TV interview on Breakfast BBC revealed the great relationship she has forged with Olivia Coleman.  It was the dream team that was needed to do justice to the book.

The Lost Daughter is in cinemas now and on Netflix. Do not expect a thriller or a conventional psychological drama. It is a film that will move you and make you think.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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