How The Lost Daughter confronts one of our most enduring cultural taboos

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, adapted from the short novel by Elena Ferrante, unravels the myth that motherhood comes naturally to women

It is clear from the opening minutes of The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s melancholic, bristly directorial debut on Netflix, that a dark secret stalks the sunny Mediterranean vacation of Leda Caruso, (a luminous Olivia Colman), a 48-year-old English professor of comparative literature. Her “working holiday” at a Greek island is immediately beset by increasingly ominous intrusions: a spectral foghorn, a bowl of rotting fruit, a shrill cicada, a boisterous Italian American family from Queens who disrupt her beachside reading. Memories pull at her focus; when the young daughter of Nina (Dakota Johnson), a beautiful, languid member of the Queens bunch who immediately catches Leda’s attention, goes briefly missing, Nina’s panic elides with a flashback to twentysomething Leda’s (Jessie Buckley) frantic search for her daughter Bianca at a beach.

It’s a familiar language of buried secrets, sinister subtext and unspooling memories – the building blocks of suspense – but the landmines in The Lost Daughter aren’t the usual culprits of dark revelation: unspeakable trauma or abuse, evil spirits, suppressed desires, the ravages of capitalism or greed. Instead, the molten core of The Lost Daughter is one of our culture’s most enduring and least touchable taboos: the selfish, uncaring, “unnatural” mother – one who doesn’t shift easily to care-taking, who does not relish her role, who not only begrudges but resents her children.

The Lost Daughter, adapted (and anglicized) from the short novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante, is a masterclass in imbuing ostensibly low stakes with spellbinding tension. The book is written entirely in Leda’s internal monologue, which Gyllenhaal, aided by Colman and Buckley’s fluid performances, conveys through taut dialogue and flashback sequences. The action is relatively mundane – Leda goes to the beach, eats dinner alone, and observes an exhausted Nina fielding the demands of her restless daughter Elena, who is lost for all of a few minutes. The most significant transgression is Leda’s impulsive and childish theft of Elena’s beloved doll. The film’s climactic reveal is not an act of abuse or searing trauma, as the prevalence of the trauma plot in film, TV and literature has taught us to expect, but an absence: for three years, Leda, desperate for reprieve and recognition, forfeited her role as mother, and left her daughters with her husband (Jack Farthing).

The stakes of The Lost Daughter feel so weighty, the viewing experience so unsettling and transgressive, because the myth Leda’s recollections deftly unravel – that motherhood will come to women naturally, that it will give something without taking something irreparable and valuable away – is so deeply woven into our culture as to be almost invisible. It is everywhere and nowhere, the idea of motherhood as an identity of tenderness, sacrifice, fulfillment and, above all, selflessness. It’s in commonly heard descriptions of motherhood as “my life completely changed”; “I became a different person”; “I found my purpose”; “I met myself”. (Which may be true for some people!) It shapes the image of mom-fluencers and so-called mommy blogs, informs the constant pressure for mothers to optimize every facet of their child’s life, and underpins the norms that, in the US, justify women as the de facto social safety net.

The Lost Daughter, as in several of Ferrante’s other works (fans will note themes further explored in her bestselling Neapolitan novels), dares to posit that for some, motherhood might not actualize the self but plunder it, especially if, like Leda, she becomes one while still barely an adult herself (doing the math, Leda was 23 when she had her first child, 25 for her second). Leda’s ambivalence toward motherhood – magnetic, vulgar, revelatory, repulsive – is a posture still rarely explored on screen. There are anti-mothering villains in films and television (Psycho, Carrie, the horror films Hereditary and The Lodge) but few examples of women who struggle with the expectations of the role in good faith, fewer still those who reject it.

Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter
Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter. Photograph: Yannis Drakoulidis/AP

Crucially, The Lost Daughter is not a portrait of regret, for either having children or leaving them. Leda never says the word, nor does she appear to feel in isolation from other emotions such as guilt, anguish, pride, love. Gyllenhaal takes pains to portray Leda as anything but an uncaring person. She comforts Nina, meets her confessions with serrated vulnerability, offers up her apartment as a hideaway for the young mother’s nascent affair. She glows reminiscing about her 20s over dinner, comforts a frightened, lost Elena on the beach. In flashback sequences, Leda can be withholding, vindictive, unreasonable with her daughters; she is also doting, curious, radiant, expressive as she teaches her children to read, to play, or just holds them.

Watching the scenes of her failures and abandonment – rebuffing her daughters, lashing out at them, leaving them – is an uncomfortable experience. Self-absorption is often indistinguishable from self-preservation, and neither are pretty. I resent Leda for ignoring her children, and I can imagine the language through which they’ll later describe their abandonment, perhaps estrangement. (For what it’s worth, I write this as a 28-year-old woman both drawn to and terrified by the prospect of having kids.) But Gyllenhaal’s unwavering focus on Leda’s battered interiority, and Colman and Buckley’s equal expressiveness, refuse to allow you to condemn her.

Leda is a woman under siege – in the past, from the constant barrages of motherhood upon her body, sleep, time, academic career, her identity, sexiness, professional opportunities. She has no outlet for herself, no recourse for the pressure and little help from her clueless husband. In the present, from the memories of exhaustion, the hauntings of failure, the ghosts of condemnation. Motherhood, she delicately tells a pregnant member of the Queens family, is “a crushing responsibility”. The Lost Daughter sits with a woman who escaped its suffocation, however temporarily; the women who experience it disjointedly, and for whom there is no peace.

  • The Lost Daughter is now available on Netflix


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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