Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut skillfully adapts Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, the story of a middle-aged woman who shouldn’t have had kids and is now spiraling while on vacation.
The film is now streaming worldwide on Netflix.
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Adapting Elena Ferrante’s work is no small feat. In her 2008 novella, The Lost Daughter, much of what we learn about the protagonist, Leda, comes from the interiority that Ferrante provides. Without understanding Leda’s psychology, the narrative loses all of its power. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s recent adaptation, available on Netflix, manages to successfully communicate Leda’s thoughts through visual imagery. Whether you’re a fan of Ferrante’s work or have no idea who she is, Gyllenhaal’s film is a worthwhile experience.
The story of The Lost Daughter is simple but packed with complexity. Leda, played by the wonderful Olivia Colman, is a forty-eight-year-old comparative literature professor on holiday in Greece. While lounging on the beach, she becomes enamoured with a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson). and her daughter, Elena (Athena Martin Anderson). As Leda watches them, she begins to think back on her own experience as a young mother with two small daughters. The stress, isolation, suffocation, and loss of identity are feelings she remembers all too well. While Nina and Elena seem blissfully happy at first, the cracks begin to show when Elena’s beloved doll, Neni, goes missing.
Unlike the novella, which is written in the first person, the film adaptation of The Lost Daughter doesn’t reveal Leda’s internal monologue. There is no lazy voiceover with dialogue taken straight from the book to spoon feed the viewer information. Instead, Gyllenhaal lets the camera linger on Colman, the type of actor who is able to simultaneously convey longing and regret solely with her eyes. She also utilises flashbacks, with Jessie Buckley as young Leda, that allow the viewer to observe her as a parent. Several other visual elements, like a rotten bowl of fruit and Leda’s frequent dizzy spells, serve as metaphors for hidden turmoil. By the time the credits rolled, I felt incredibly thankful for my therapist, a woman who has helped me sort out my own trauma so that I can hopefully avoid imparting it on any future generations.
Despite the film’s ending, which is more positive than Ferrante’s, this film may destroy you. To me, it reads as a cautionary tale for what happens when women who aren’t well-suited to motherhood go through with it anyway. Regret and resentment overtake any positive feelings, forever bubbling close to the surface and waiting for an opportunity to explode. Once the explosion occurs and irreparable damage has been done, all that’s left is crushing guilt. Societal and self judgement commingle and act as a paralytic, preventing any possible avenue for redemption. If you can stomach two hours spent watching a character who should have gone to therapy twenty-five years ago but didn’t, I highly recommend this film. For a first time writer-director, Gyllenhaal impressed the hell out of me with this skillful adaptation of a difficult, emotionally dense text.
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