Maggie Gyllenhaal’s director-writer debut feature, The Lost Daughter looks at the difficulties of motherhood from the perspective of Leda (Olivia Colman). The movie holds the hesitation towards motherhood and the joyful moments between Leda and her children. There is a spectrum of emotions that are not normally seen in a Hollywood movie, and Gyllenhaal explores the anxieties, fear, and confusion behind it.
A middle-aged Leda is on vacation on a small island in Greece. She becomes fixated by a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, Elena (Athena Martin Anderson). Their mother-daughter relationship reminds Leda of her children, who were demanding and the memories overwhelm her. Things take a turn for the worse when Elena goes missing, an act quite similar to Leda’s own experience, and she helps to find the young girl. However, when Leda steals Elena’s doll, she is forced to face the consequences of her actions and her past.
The Lost Daughter is seemingly told through flashbacks and shows a young Leda (Jessie Buckley) taking care of her two daughters while juggling an academic career. But not everything is perfect. She has trouble balancing life and work, and in the moments where the children are too overwhelming, she wants to escape. “Children are a crushing responsibility,” says the middle-aged Leda, who knows about the burdens and sacrifices that she had to go through to get where is right now. But these decisions have not always been good. At one point in the movie, it is revealed that she does something that hurts the relationship with her daughters, and she carries the guilt with her. She did not want her academic life to be interrupted by her domestic life, so she leaves her children with their father, Joe (Jack Farthing) and seizes new opportunities.
One aspect that The Lost Daughter explores is the feminine experience. It is brutal, overwhelming, lonely, and portrays an honest depiction of what it means to be a daughter, mother, and lover. Leda is a flawed and complicated character. She is not shown to be a perfect mother, and it’s the kind of truth that Gyllenhaal wanted to show in the movie. Leda is guilty of many things and she carries the bulk of the weight. When she remembers her daughters, she panics and loses her senses in the moment. In a scene where Leda is buying clothes for Elena’s lost doll, Nina and her family walk into the store. While talking about her daughters, Leda loses her balance and crashes into the shelf. Perhaps, the mere mention of her children causes her to physically endure the pain and she cannot control it. The pain is etched into her.
But the truth is Leda’s choices are not conventional. Her selfish and non-maternal choices are not made to be right or wrong, though, the decision is left for the viewer to determine. As the viewer watches Leda lying on the floor, tired and exhausted from taking care of her kids, there is a sense that she wants to live her own life. Just like Leda, Joe is an enthusiastic academic, who is often away on work trips and does not offer to help her with the kids. Being constrained by motherhood and matrimony made her feel exasperated and stopped her from going on adventures. For women, motherhood is not an option, it is expected of them to take care of their children, while fatherhood is seen as an option. When Leda meets a hitchhiker couple, who reveals that the male hiker left his children behind with their mother and is travelling with his lover, it opens her eyes. The double standards and the requirement for mothers to not leave their children, while it is perfectly acceptable for men to leave is an aspect of the movie that is explored.
Colman delivers a performance filled with heartbreak and anger, and one that also shows the vulnerable aspect of Leda’s motherhood. She plays the internalized guilt and burden of Leda’s choices with a range of emotions, and one that fits into the complex life of Leda. The Lost Daughter is a promising debut for Gyllenhaal because it focuses on a mother’s perspective of the choices and burdens that she carried out in her life. It’s a fascinating and thoughtful depiction of the ambivalence of motherhood, not afraid to peel back on the complicated life of Leda. Gyllenhaal portrays Leda and her decisions in a non-judgmental manner, focusing on Buckley’s face as she takes care of her children. It is easy to judge her conditions, but The Lost Daughter unfolds the difficult and complex spectrum of motherhood.