starring Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jessie Buckley
screenplay by Maggie Gyllenhaal, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante
directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal
by Walter Chaw Leda (Jessie Buckley) is brilliant. She's translating Auden into Italian and, more than just translating, she's interpreting the work in a way that's exciting to other scholars. She so impresses a hotshot in the field, one Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard), that he seduces her during a conference--or she seduces him, cheating on her milquetoast husband and two young daughters. She abandons all of them eventually. It's a decision that haunts her. At least it should, though she's not so sure it does. But that was a long time ago. Leda (Olivia Colman) is now 48, vacationing by herself on a tiny beachfront in Italy. These days, she's an English teacher of no particular renown looking for a small patch of ocean to float in, a small stretch of sand to lounge on, food when she's hungry, and a bed when she's tired. There's this other family, however, consisting of a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who's struggling with a difficult child and a husband, Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who looks like bad news. Though maybe not as bad-news as Toni's sister, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), who, seven months pregnant, wants to take a swing at Leda when Leda refuses to give up her umbrella for Callie's birthday party. The cabana boy, Will (Paul Mescal), spots this and tells Leda he admires her for it but also warns her against doing it again. "Why?" she asks. "Because those are bad people." When she's walking home that afternoon, a large pine cone falls out of a tree and punches a small hole in Leda's back.
Her tiny act of defiance against Callie is the first time we get an inkling that Leda-of-a-certain-age isn't a hamster whose confidence has been destroyed by the big world. The first inkling that she is maybe Yeats's Leda, brutalized by an incomprehensible universe yet destructive as a result of her victimization. Actually, I don't think Leda is a victim at all. Yeats didn't think his Leda was, either. Part of Professor Hardy's seduction of Leda is his ability to, on the fly, quote Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" to her in its entirety and in Italian. It's sexy. Because he can read and translate the poem but doesn't really listen to what the poem is saying, he has no idea what he's getting himself into. Writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal has made a career of portraying smart, strong women unstrung or at least unconventional enough to be unsettling, and here, in her hyphenate debut, she adapts an early Elena Ferrante novel as an exquisitely uncomfortable vehicle. She could have starred in any of the four main female roles (old and young Leda, Nina, Callie) at various points in her career. The mystery in the film is how young mother and budding intellectual superstar Leda came to be this rather pathetic figure, afraid of her own shadow, unsure of how to handle the old guy serving as the caretaker for her summer rental, Lyle (Ed Harris), who's either trying to make the moves on her or spying on her on behalf of the "bad people." Maybe neither. Maybe both.
Nina's kid gets herself lost, causing a panic. When Leda locates her and returns her to the brood, it's discovered that the little girl's doll is now missing, causing trauma upon tantrum and for those bags under Nina's eyes to grow heavier and heavier. The day's events trigger something in Leda, as well, the memory of a beach trip she took some years ago with her own very small children, and how one of them went missing then, too. The Lost Daughter never lets slip what's happened to Leda's kids; Leda isn't telling. She gives Nina advice, then confesses that the three years she spent away from her little ones constitute the best time of her life, although she returned because she missed them and she is, at her essence, a selfish person. There isn't much in The Lost Daughter that I anticipated: I didn't think Leda would confess to doing a terrible thing she does, and I didn't expect the picture not to take the easy way out in drawing an obvious connection between her younger self and poor Nina, trapped in a den of wolves as not a prey animal, but a predator of a different species. Everyone is dangerous in this film--especially Leda: an agent of chaotic evil and a woman invested entirely in sabotaging every single "good" situation in which she finds herself.
The Lost Daughter is curious about the nature of "good," though: Scenes of young Leda with her daughters show her unable to balance work with their needs and constantly losing her temper with them. She's trying but failing. When she tells Nina that she knows what it's like to be exhausted by your kids, it's clear she understands it as a battle you fight for a while and eventually lose. She has a husband who loves her, a career, two beautiful girls, and none of it is 'good' to her. Good to her is being praised for her work by people she admires, dinners amongst like-minded intellectuals where she's appreciated for the products of her hand and not her loins, or sex with men more interested in her ideas than in the legitimacy a union with her would represent in a traditional, societal context. There's something regressive about Leda, too, how she likes to sleep with dolls and how when she flirts with the cabana boy, she mentions that she likes to peel oranges in one long, unbroken "snake." She makes a self-deprecating joke about how fussy she is, but she doesn't seem fussy--she seems like a dangerous mess. The brilliance of The Lost Daughter is in how Gyllenhaal makes us worry about Leda, anyway. If we don't exactly like her, there's this feeling, ultimately, that if Leda has in fact been the agent of one of her daughter's deaths, well, people are complicated. There's reason to believe Leda doesn't survive this film, and if she doesn't, her heaven is unusually touching. There's also reason to believe she does survive, and in her survival we find our expectations and judgments of her motivations and actions undermined again. The Lost Daughter is a film about sonder. Everyone is a bundle of contradictions, a collection of venial sins, and sometimes even an example of better angels, which, in the end, are the strangest presenting phenomena of them all. I think "the lost daughter" is Leda. Aren't we all?