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Olivia Colman in a scene from The Lost Daughter.Courtesy of Netflix

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The Lost Daughter

Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Written by Maggie Gyllenhaal, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante

Starring Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Ed Harris

Classification R; 121 minutes

Opens in select theatres Dec. 17, including the TIFF Lightbox; streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 31

Critic’s pick

In The Lost Daughter, an academic named Leda (Olivia Colman) takes a week-long holiday in Greece. That doesn’t sound like the premise for a harrowingly honest exploration of the pleasures and pains of motherhood. But in the assured hands of writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal, working from the novel by Elena Ferrante, those pleasures and pains are rendered so acutely as to feel almost fatal.

With deft strokes, Gyllenhaal – making her debut as a writer/director after a rich acting career – establishes that this mother and this holiday are not straightforward. Fruit rots in a bowl; a giant cicada stains a pillowcase. Leda suffers frequent bouts of dizziness. A phone conversation between her and one of her two grown daughters is a miracle of economy: “I’m on holiday,” Leda begins to burble, “I’m looking out over the most – oh. Okay, I love you, too, bye.”

Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter sheds light on topics that women aren’t supposed to discuss

Leda’s beach idyll is shattered by the arrival of a noisy Greek-American clan. The men posture menacingly from the sidelines, but it’s the women who run the show, especially Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), who is splendidly pregnant, and her sister-in-law Nina (Dakota Johnson), the mother of a toddler called Elena. Gyllenhaal shows us how, for a mother of a young child, there is no such thing as a holiday: Elena is constantly on Nina, pouring water on her feet, touching her face, demanding she sit up and pay attention. “I’m scary tired,” Nina confesses to Leda. “I remember,” Leda replies.

Meeting Nina catapults Leda back to when she was a young academic (played in flashbacks by Jessie Buckley) struggling to answer the deeply satisfying call of her work while also raising two young daughters with little help from her husband (Jack Farthing).

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Based on the novel by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter doesn’t shy away from the darker moments of motherhood.Courtesy of Netflix

Gyllenhaal makes it clear that Leda loves her girls. But she doesn’t shy away from the darker moments of motherhood – how a child’s whiny cry grates on your ears; how desperate you are for five minutes alone; how when your kid hits you, it hurts. At a conference, young Leda meets a scholar (Peter Sarsgaard) who sees the beauty of her mind. They embark on an affair, and she makes a radical choice, the consequences of which echo through her Greek holiday.

Imperfect mothers are a hot topic right now. In The Push, Ashley Audrain’s bestselling novel, a mother who is unable to bond with her daughter is drummed out of her family. In the Netflix series Maid, the untreated mental illness of a mother (Andie Macdowell) redounds on her daughter (Margaret Qualley) and granddaughter. In the HBO series Scenes from a Marriage – Hagai Levi’s remake of the groundbreaking Ingmar Berman series (1973) and film (1974) – working mother Mira (Jessica Chastain) takes a temporary job in Israel but promises to commute to the U.S. every other week. Her observation that “men do it all the time” may be correct, but it doesn’t assuage our judgment of her. And in Succession, Lady Caroline (Harriet Walter), the Roy children’s unabashedly aloof mother, recently told Siobhan (Sarah Snook), “I probably should never have had children. Some people just aren’t made to be mothers. I should have had dogs.”

But in The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal isn’t interested in judgment, only truth. Every decision she makes is exactly the right one. Her three lead actresses have never been better, and casting Buckley as the young Colman is particularly inspired. It doesn’t matter that they don’t look alike – they share a crucial essence. As well, Gyllenhaal creates and sustains a tone of mystery and tension that would rival any thriller, but feels especially miraculous here, since her subject is a woman’s inner life.

Motherhood is a foundational relationship for most people on Earth, yet art that accepts and examines what that really looks like – what it costs – is almost non-existent. At the movie’s climax, Leda tells Nina, “None of this passes.” Gyllenhaal wants us to wince at that. She earns it.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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