Children are a crushing responsibility.
Leda (Olivia Colman) has obviously been looking forward to her working vacation on a Greek island. She cannot stop smiling upon arrival. It’s not long after, however, that the prospect of a quiet few weeks taking notes for the next year’s course load or current research takes a turn for the worse. Enter a loud, entitled extended family every local knows by name and reputation. The noise distracts Leda from her work. The disruptive attitudes born from the privilege of being feared ruins her ability to sunbathe, watch movies, and dance if they deem that area their next raucous destination. But it’s a young mother and daughter duo (Dakota Johnson‘s Nina and little Elena) who really hit her hard—their tumultuous relationship reminding her of the past.
First-time writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal takes us back to those days when Leda was a young mother herself (played by Jessie Buckley) juggling two rambunctious daughters with a husband still in school (Jack Farthing‘s Joe) and a comparative literature career about to take off. When Nina loses sight of Elena on the beach, Leda recalls the terror of the same happening to her. When we see Elena disfiguring her favorite doll, Leda conjures glimpses of the time she trusted her eldest daughter to play with a doll from her own childhood only to have it become an object of abusive retribution. Despite being the coolly collected and defiantly unyielding stranger ensuring everyone knows she’s not interested in their attention, these memories begin leaving her faint and susceptible to danger.
Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Lost Daughter sees a conflicted Leda trying to traverse two simultaneous truths that have defined her life these past three decades. She’s both an independent woman ready to tackle any challenge that presents itself and a mother of two who loves her daughters even if the first truth often leaves them the odd focus out. It’s therefore triggering to watch Nina struggling while relatives who don’t know (Dagmara Dominczyk‘s Callie is pregnant with her first child) try to pretend they know better and relatives who don’t care (Nina’s husband Toni, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen) leave her fending for herself until they’re able to play the victim. Leda remembers the futility, depression, and wanting nothing more than escape despite its inevitably heavy cost.
We watch as she gets pulled back to those years when motherhood was stalling her career and providing less than satisfactory returns for the trouble. We witness Leda’s attempts to both reclaim the good feelings and reject the bad by way of Elena’s now lost doll—stolen in the confusion of the girl’s disappearance and kept in secret despite its absence causing irreparable damage to Nina’s family’s good time. Sometimes Leda wants to repair it to its former glory. Other times she’s fine chucking it into the garbage to be forgotten forever. She craves its symbolism now that she barely talks to her own daughters and understands the power of its hold. She’ll willfully let Nina drown in the ensuing chaos, pushing her to discover what she craves.
The game leaves her conflicted, though, because choosing what she wanted didn’t necessarily leave her satisfied. But I do think Leda would agree it saved her. She felt unseen and unimportant as she tried to salvage her identity as a linguist from her identity as a mother. Joe was in the driver’s seat, his education steering the wheel. It’s not until they meet a pair of hikers that she sees the possibility of taking control as more than a fantasy. Add a surprise invitation to an out-of-town conference regardless of her being relegated into the role of secretary and the freedom to do what she pleases excites her. And then Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard) speaks of her research unprompted? The road officially diverges into one or the other.
Are there regrets in hindsight? The fainting spells are a resounding, “Yes.” Would she do it all again? Her interest in Nina rebelling against her domineering family’s whims leans that way too. Leda is standing on the edge of a cliff, though. She’s tempting fate by getting embroiled in the affairs of an obviously criminal family to open the eyes of this young woman who reminds her so much of herself. Leda wants to be Nina’s hiker (Alba Rohrwacher). She wants to show her that it’s okay to have desires and see them through. And she’s emboldened by everyone’s stares as they wonder what her angle is, frustrated by her continued refusal to show them the respect that fear has always supplied. It’s an intense ride.
The in-close, handheld camerawork only adds to this effect because we’re very often mere inches away from Colman or Buckley’s faces depending on whether we’re in the present or the past. This is an intimate portrayal of feminine autonomy and the constant, suffocating barrage of traditional patriarchal norms that seek to erase it. Gyllenhaal expertly finds the drama and comedy in these situations with the help of Colman’s unforgettably expressive performance when someone dares to assume her needs or desires. Letting her Leda look upon a completely gassed Ed Harris with satisfaction after he volunteered to carry her book-filled suitcases up the stairs is great. The daggers she throws Dominczyk whenever the latter presumes to know what a mother feels are deadly. You cannot know until you are.
Every cut from Greece into memory is seamlessly fluid, the whole presented like a dance through time and emotion with Leda always taking the lead. Colman and Buckley are phenomenal in that role. The whole cast is (even Nina’s bratty cousins causing Leda’s blood to boil), but those two have such a command of their shared character that it’s easy to forget the rest. And Gyllenhaal lets it happen with purpose. She puts Leda’s strengths and vulnerabilities at the center with that precise yet organic cinematography and Dickon Hinchliffe‘s jaunty theme following her at the beginning and the end. The Lost Daughter is the type of story that separates guilt from regret to expose how Leda possesses none of the former. She owns her tears, unapologetically.
 THE LOST DAUGHTER: OLIVIA COLMAN as LEDA. CR: YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021.
 THE LOST DAUGHTER: DAKOTA JOHNSON as NINA. CR: NETFLIX © 2021
 THE LOST DAUGHTER (L-R): PETER SARSGAARD as PROFESSOR HARDY, JESSIE BUCKLEY as YOUNG LEDA. CR: NETFLIX © 2021