Motherhood. It’s such a rich subject for art to ponder, you’d think we’d have already seen every kind of mother onscreen.
But actually we haven’t. Sure, we’ve seen good moms, bad moms, crazy moms, selfish moms, generous moms, loving moms, cold moms. But what strikes home so vividly in "The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s gorgeous directorial debut, is how rarely we see a mother who is all those things at once. And yet honestly, what could be more real than that?
On my first viewing of Gyllenhaal’s film, adapted from an Elena Ferrante novel, I was preoccupied with Olivia Colman in yet another blazing performance (is there anything Colman can’t do?), a veritable onion shedding layers as she plays Leda, a prickly yet exceedingly vulnerable 48-year-old academic.
But there’s another facet to this film that makes it a rarity. On second viewing, what transfixed me was the synergy between older Leda and younger Leda, played by Jessie Buckley as a mother on the cusp of 30. Gyllenhaal interweaves their stories with a deft touch that deepens the connection as the film progresses, to the point where nary a doubt remains that they’re the same person. Do they look alike? Outwardly no, I guess, but there’s an inner connection that’s astonishing (the two actors never meet, of course). The casting choice – it was Colman who suggested Buckley – is simply inspired.
We meet Colman’s Leda as she arrives on an idyllic Greek island for a “working holiday,” laden with books. A British professor of comparative literature who teaches “in Cambridge, near Boston” (wink wink), Colman's Leda settles into a rental apartment a short walk through the woods to the sea. She seems content — triumphant, even — the next day as she nestles in her beach chair with an ice cream cone and her notebooks.
Then the family arrives — a boisterous extended clan from Queens in New York, who noisily disturb her peaceful isolation, even asking her to move to another part of the beach (she says no.) But Leda is fascinated by the quiet one, Nina, a beautiful young mother (Dakota Johnson) whose domineering husband spends weekdays off the island. She can’t seem to keep her eyes off Nina and the young daughter, who demands her exhausted mom’s constant attention. In fact, Leda immediately starts to cry.
When, one day, the little girl goes missing for a bit, it's Leda who manages to find her, earning gratitude from the frantic Nina. But the youngster has lost her prized doll, and she's inconsolable for days on end.
Meanwhile, the onion is peeling — we’re learning more about Leda, a mother of two adult daughters. As she gradually reveals details to Will (Paul Mescal), the strapping young Irishman who works at the beach house, or to Lyle (Ed Harris), the American caretaker of her apartment, or to Nina, Gyllenhaal toggles these scenes with those from decades earlier, when Leda — now Buckley — was a young mom balancing work with parenting. Although her husband, also an academic, clearly loves the girls, it’s his work — as in so many families — that takes precedence at tough moments.
The scenes with Buckley (as splendid as Colman) and her daughters are heartbreaking, especially to any mother who’s tried unsuccessfully to find the balance between children and the work that makes her whole. Her Leda can go from deeply loving — collapsing to the floor in giggles with her girls — to terribly cruel, as when she (excruciatingly!) refuses to kiss the cut finger of her crying daughter. And yet she's so passionate — about life, and about work — that we can’t help but sympathize with her.
Then there’s Nina (an excellent Johnson doing some of her best work to date), whose troubled motherhood becomes a mirror for older Leda. Colman’s most dramatic moments, which combine an aching vulnerability with a distasteful brittleness, come in two scenes with Johnson. In one, Leda makes a heart-shattering confession about her past. In the other, she cops to an inexplicable transgression in the present.
With lead performances like these, it’s easy to forget the noteworthy work in supporting roles. Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard, is effective as a sexy academic who pursues young Leda, and Mescal is hugely charismatic as Will. Harris is a grizzled, grounded presence as the caretaker who tries to get closer to Leda. Jack Farthing as her husband and Dagmara Dominczyk as a motherly figure in Nina’s family also make an impression.
“I'm an unnatural mother,” Colman’s Leda says at one pivotal point. Her face is contorted in guilt (or is it grief?) at the circumstances that have brought her to that moment.
But it seems that she, and Gyllenhaal, are telling us something more: Perhaps there is no such thing as a “natural” mother. Perhaps there's something in this tale of two women — or really, three — that speaks to all who try to pretend that it’s unnatural to sometimes be ambivalent about motherhood. And that motherhood is not, in ways and at times, a struggle for nearly everyone.
“The Lost Daughter,” a Netflix release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for sexual content/nudity and language.” Running time: 122 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.