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New to Netflix - THE LOST DAUGHTER

the lost daughter review
Triggered by painful memories, a holidaying professor carries out a spiteful act.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Starring: Olivia Colman, Jessie  Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Paul Mescal, Peter Sarsgaard, Dagmara Domińczyk

the lost daughter poster

One of the traits that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our spitefulness. Other creatures will inflict cruelty as a means of survival, to keep themselves fed or to guard their territory, but only humans cause harm to others for the sake of it. Almost all of us will have felt this desire to cause pain to someone else at some point, usually when we're feeling put upon and jealous that others are escaping the misery we're experiencing. This is how genocides begin, with a populace convinced that causing harm to one group is the cure for their own misery. Thankfully, such human cruelty is usually worked out of our systems during childhood, when our parents teach us that hiding our sibling's toys out of jealousy and spite is something we need to leave behind if we're to become stable adults.

Some of us don’t leave such feelings in childhood and carry spite into our adult lives. With her assured feature debut as writer and director, Maggie Gyllenhaal explores this idea in her adaptation of Elena Ferrante's novel The Lost Daughter. The film revolves around a spiteful act, and what's daring about Gyllenhaal's debut is that said act is carried out by the protagonist rather than some unambiguous villain.

the lost daughter review

An arguably never better Olivia Colman is Leda Caruso, a language professor taking a working beach break in the Mediterranean. The location seems idyllic at first, with a beach all to herself. But then her solace is disturbed by the arrival of an extended family of Noo Yawkers who noisily commandeer the beach. Among them is young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson), who holds what seems at first to be an almost erotic fascination for Leda.


After getting on the wrong side of Nina's large family by refusing to move to another spot on the beach, Leda gets into their good graces by finding Nina's daughter when she vanishes from the beach. While Nina is reunited with her daughter, the latter has lost her favourite doll. Finding it in her beach bag, Leda decides not to return the doll to the child but instead hides it in her apartment.

the lost daughter review

This act of cruelty and sprite propels a character study of a character well worth studying. Leda is fascinatingly enigmatic at first as we try to figure out just what is her motivation for hiding the doll. Does she wish to punish the child or her mother? Is it a means to bring Nina closer to herself, either physically or through a shared pain? Flashbacks suggest the latter, as we see Leda as a young mother (played by Jessie Buckley) struggling to cope with raising two young daughters of her own. These scenes play like a reversal of the mother-child dynamic of Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, as here it's the mother who appears to lack empathy.


A lot of taboos have been erased at this point when it comes to women, but one that stubbornly remains is the idea that a woman who lacks maternal instincts is a sinister figure to be viewed with suspicion. For a woman to admit that she has no interest in raising kids is still oddly tantamount to admitting to eating puppies. This idea is so ingrained in some people, especially in other women, that the audience for The Lost Daughter is likely to be divided when it comes to its protagonist. Some will dismiss her entirely as a woman who isn't worthy of our sympathy, but hopefully many will recognise her as a victim of a society that prides itself on evolving from so many animal instincts while remaining rutted in others. If we are to shed the baser animal instincts and evolve as a species, isn't it only naturally that maternal instincts should follow suit?

the lost daughter review

Gyllenhaal gleefully takes on this notion, as children and family are portrayed through the eyes of Leda as a nuisance at best, a source of agony at worst. The women in Nina's family speak with a Catholic pride of their children, but Nina carries her daughter not in a loving embrace, but rather as though she's a bag of laundry she needs to drop off on her way to the office. Not since The Specials sang 'Too Much Too Young' has a piece of western culture shown such disdain for the "miracle" of parenthood.

Colman is thrilling here, embodying a character that will likely make a lot of women finally feel seen. Alone on the beach while surrounded by people she can't relate to, she's like Jaws's Sheriff Brody – she could tell these people with their baby bumps and never-ending families that they might not be living their best lives, but they wouldn't listen and they certainly wouldn't understand her point of view. As Leda's younger self, Buckley seems at first an odd choice given her lack of physical resemblance to Colman. But by the middle of the movie the two actresses' performances are as in sync as the menstrual cycles of sorority sisters. I'm curious to learn the process by which Gyllenhaal worked with the pair – did she film one actress and show her scenes to the other, or was it simply a case that both performers truly understood this character? A lot of women will understand this character, but may not feel comfortable admitting so.

The Lost Daughter
 is on Netflix now.



2021 movie reviews