There’s a lot of misdirection in The Lost Daughter, starting with the title, but to go into exactly where the misdirection lies and what it consists of is to ruin the entire film.
It’s an adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel, which is a bit of an unusual departure in itself, because for all the massive popularity of Ferrante right now, there have been very few screen adaptations of her work – before this only two movies in 1995 and 2005, and a highly regarded Italian TV series (about to enter its fourth season, as I type).
The success of The Lost Daughter – Oscar nominations for the two lead actors, plus another one for Best Adapted Screenplay to director Maggie Gyllenhaal, good viewing figures on Netflix, critical acclaim – will probably open the floodgates.
Ferrante herself is a bit of a mystery. It’s not her real name, for a start, and the real author refuses to out herself, though sleuthing has established that she’s a) Italian and b) might teach Italian literature.
All of which is worth bearing in mind as the story of Leda, a guarded professor of comparative Italian literature, plays out on a sunny Greek island, a place where everyone seems to have a dark side, starting with the charming guy who manages the apartment Leda has taken for the summer. Lyle is all tan lines and easygoing bonhomie but something steely lurks behind that twinkle (else why hire Ed Harris to play him?).
There’s a beach cafe run by affable and helpful Will (Paul Mescal, of Normal People fame), another charmer, but one who knows where all the bodies on this island are buried. Quite possibly put there by the extended gangsterish Greek American family who holiday here each year in a grand pink villa and colonise the beach they clearly believe is theirs.
Among this group are Nina (Dakota Johnson), a babelicious young mum finding child-rearing is getting in the way of the rest of her life, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), the steely core of the group and Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Nina’s husband, a thug who’s mainly with Nina because he wants to have sex with her.
Against this backdrop – the sea, the sun, the fresh octopus, the balmy, aniseed-infused nights – the backstory of the emotionally wary Leda is gradually told. How, as a young mum in academia (played in flashback by Jessie Buckley), she too struggled juggling child-rearing and a career and how this eventually led to a crisis, one still etched in the older Leda’s responses to stress. This history resurfaces when Nina’s child wanders off one day on the beach, causing general panic.
Three things to say about Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directing: it’s in the service of the material and she resists the urge to showboat; all the characters, no matter how sunny, maintain an ambiguity that’s vital to the entire endeavour; the sense of threat from first beat to last is superbly maintained.
Olivia Colman, lovely nice Olivia Colman, is casually brilliant as the troubled but possibly vile Leda. Jessie Buckley as the younger version doesn’t quite copy the older actor’s mannerisms but is close enough that we understand who she is – Oscars are surely already being polished for future roles. Both are geniuses at emotional resonance, and that’s what powers the drama.
Dramas about women’s grand plans being undermined by the minutiae of everyday life – the toys and tears of their children – are rarely seen at the multiplex and barely trouble the release schedules of the streaming giants. Ferrante’s fascination with the nuanced joys and woes of family life just doesn’t promote hard-ons in pitch meetings, obviously. As for child-rearing as essentially scary, rather than being something women just do, this is another of those stories we’re told people don’t really want to hear, though the success of The Lost Daughter suggests otherwise.
But look at it another way – the story of Leda in Greek mythology is one about a woman being raped by a swan. Ferrante, Gyllenhaal, Colman and Buckley are letting us off lightly.
The Lost Daughter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022