The Lost Daughter Review: A Haunting Yet Stunning Portrait Of Motherhood

The Lost Daughter Review: A Haunting Yet Stunning Portrait Of Motherhood

Rating: 4/5

Films have often fed the notion that maternity equates innocence and unquestionable devotion to one’s children. Mothers are pure, noble, and shoulder the Herculean responsibility of childcare. Lingering urges, fierce passions, and a firm sense of freedom are stripped away and trampled under the burden of handling children. But The Lost Daughter (2021), adapted from the novel of the same name, penned by Elena Ferrante, examines the laborious and flip side of motherhood. It’s a delicate subject that will most certainly ruffle a few feathers, but Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is so poignantly constructed and astutely realized, one can hardly find any fault in the film and its themes. 

The Plot:
The Lost Daughter follows Leda (Olivia Colman), a college professor vacationing in idyllic Greece, whose vacation is gradually upended by the arrival of a boisterous family. The unruly bunch triggers Leda’s anxiety, and their rowdiness further frustrates and unsettles her on an otherwise docile trip. But as she’s approached and makes conversation with the brash family, Leda soon becomes consumed by Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young woman in the family, and her infant daughter, Elena. It’s Leda’s inexplicable fixation with Nina that ultimately propels the narrative of The Lost Daughter. The young mother and child plunge Leda into a painful, harrowing remembrance of her own tumultuous time as a mother.   


The Lost Daughter brings to mind a blistering quote from the 3rd season of the magnificent TV opera, Succession. Without giving away crucial context or integral plot points, one character coldly utters, “Some people aren’t made to be mothers.” It’s a mortifying quote to ponder on, but it’s something The Lost Daughter is especially keen on investigating. For all the loyal and virtuous notions of motherhood, the film delves into the unexplored hardships of raising a child. 

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As we learn through increasingly perturbing flashbacks, a younger Leda faced the insurmountable task of almost solely nurturing two daughters. As the film probes deeper, we gain a clearer and more concise grip on Lena’s motivations and it’s Hélène Louvart’s dizzyingly beautiful cinematography which stirs alive the claustrophobia of mothers everywhere. 

Although it may subjectively worsen or ameliorate your experience, one doesn’t necessarily have to be a parent to comprehend The Lost Daughter. The frequent close-ups and immaculate sound design work in conjunction to recreate the tiring confines of motherhood, even to those who may find it to be an alienating subject matter. 

The Lost Daughter reinvigorates the decades-old debate surrounding working mothers and their fervent need for freedom. Even as women permeate the workspace, there are ingrained expectations that however preoccupied they may be, it would be sinful of them to neglect their children. But through the unbridled and complex character of Leda, The Lost Daughter puts forth a woman with robust passions and goals in life, who seems strangely bogged down by children and almost frustrated with them.

The Lost Daughter Review: A Haunting Yet Stunning Portrait Of Motherhood

 Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson in The Lost Daughter. (Credits: Netflix)

It’s the very puzzling antithesis of all the cinematic mothers we’ve grown accustomed to: here’s a woman who desires to clip off her children, forsake her husband and start afresh with an emphasis on her career. It’s a fascinating dissection of a mind like Leda’s, as we don’t necessarily sympathize with her as much as we comprehend her. As the film unfolds, it becomes harder to lay a firm finger on a woman as emotionally volatile and conflicted as Leda. 

“Children are a crushing responsibility,” she thoughtlessly utters to a woman expecting her first child. The Lost Daughter primarily flourishes because of its sublime and nuanced treatment of a theme this fragile. 

The very possibility of depicting children onscreen as a terrible nuisance and a suffocative annoyance for mothers, is probably enough to spark some debates. But Gyllenhaal’s depiction is so utterly refreshing, one never feels as though she’s holding up an anti-children sign and bellowing, “Toddlers are a nightmare, abandon them all.” It’s clearly a distinctive take on motherhood and the overwhelming burden it entails. In the words of Gyllenhaal herself, “It is scary to come out and say something you feel is true when no one else is saying it. It’s easier with Elena Ferrante (author of The Lost Daughter) as my north star, having already said it.”

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For all its visually sumptuous cinematography, spectacular writing, and an absolutely terrific score, The Lost Daughter is significantly bolstered by the perfect performances of its cast. Dakota Johnson is utterly hypnotic, and this is most certainly a definitive turning point in her career. Dagmara Domińczyk and Ed Harris are indisputably excellent, although I can’t help feeling as though Paul Mescal, an otherwise sensational performer, was disappointingly wasted. However, he still ensures a memorable onscreen presence. A special mention for Peter Sarsgaard (who also happens to be the real-life husband of Maggie Gyllenhaal), who despite some fleeting screen time, is simply remarkable. 

But the real stars are Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley; the two women turn in flawless performances, the kind of career-defining acting most stars can virtually only dream of. 

For a film that oscillates so frequently between the past and present, it’s essential that the leading women are in sync with one another and seem to bear both physical and psychological resemblances to a single character. Thankfully, Gyllenhaal struck gold with Colman and Buckley, two actresses so impeccable and sublime onscreen, one is simply entranced by their sheer potency and their unflinching command of the craft. 

Dickon Hindchliffe’s soundtrack equally elevates the film. An intriguing blend of unnerving strings, reminiscent of a horror film, coupled with rousing jazz and piano music. 

Now for all its endless merits, The Lost Daughter isn’t a faultless feature; it does meander far more than it should in some scenes, lingering on dull moments when it could have spurred more compelling conversations instead. It’s the layered and ambiguous interactions among the characters where The Lost Daughter mines most of its power. The ending also feels a tad bit underwhelming and perplexing, but the beauty of the last two hours is never washed over.

It’s also worth mentioning that Ferrante was prepared to nullify the film contract of The Lost Daughter, if Gyllenhaal herself didn’t helm the feature. And after a first viewing of the film, it’s clear that Ferrante has terrific instincts, because The Lost Daughter, under the directorial guidance of Gyllenhaal, is a surefire winner in every way. 

The Lost Daughter is now streaming on Netflix. 

Watch the trailer here

Author Biographical Note: The author is currently pursuing a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Jai Hind College, Mumbai. He is currently working for Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue in the capacity of an intern.  

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