The Lost Daughter review: Olivia Colman pitch-perfect in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s unvarnished motherhood movie

Maggie Gyllenhaal tackles a brutally honest look at motherhood in The Lost Daughter (Picture: Netflix/AP)

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, the actor’s assured film debut as a director and writer, presents an unflinching, warts-and-all portrayal of motherhood, pinned on the majesty of Olivia Colman’s performance as the complex Leda.

Based on Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, Leda is a professor of comparative literature on a solo working holiday in Greece. At first a casual observer of her surroundings, she soon gets swept into the drama of a visiting family from New York, and in particular Nina (Dakota Johnson), who is struggling with the demands of motherhood. When Nina’s daughter goes missing, painful memories of Leda’s own experiences as a mother to two daughters rise to the surface.

The Lost Daughter is a raw film, in both its performances and its taboo topic, centering on a woman who describes herself as ‘an unnatural mother’ and looks back at her failures and resentment as a young mum (played in the past by Jessie Buckley) attempting to make a name for herself in academia. 

Stepping outside the strict bounds on women to ‘have it all’ and hunger for motherhood, the movie presents a fresh and impactful take on society’s expectations for women.

Olivia Colman’s gift for unselfconscious performances continues to keep giving, her unguarded facial expressions allowing the flicker of every emotion to cross her face. It also uplifts the film with unexpected moments of comedy, perhaps lost in the hands (or on the face) of any other actor.

Her clear disgruntlement when her peaceful beach is disrupted by Nina’s family, alongside her keenness to be left alone by property caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) when he strikes up conversation while she’s eating dinner, are also experiences with which the majority of Brits will strongly identify.

Leda (Colman) is intrigued by Nina (Johnson) (Picture: Netflix/AP)

Leda bonds with Irish student Will (Paul Mescal) (Picture: Netflix)

Of course, Oscar winner Colman is also ready to break your heart with her grief as well.

The Lost Daughter begins like any gentle holiday film as Leda arrives in her gorgeous Greek surroundings and slowly starts to settle in, but it gradually takes on a greater emotional burden as she engages more with Nina, causing her to reflect on her past.

Jessie Buckley is an interesting choice for young Leda, which works despite the fact that she is not noticeably similar to Colman in either looks or performance, and also has the odd Irish vowel slip through. The quality she does match Colman for, however, is rawness and openness in her portrayal of a young, dissatisfied mother, frustrated by her daughters’ behaviour and how their presence chafes at her career ambitions.

Young Leda (Buckley) is tempted by a colleague (Sarsgaard) (Picture: Netflix)

Colman offers a searing portrait of a woman in pain (Picture: Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix)

She also manages to evoke understanding, even when she embarks on an affair with a flattering colleague (Peter Sarsgaard, who is almost worryingly convincing in his part as a pretentious professor).

Dakota Johnson rounds out the trio of excellent lead actresses, showing her skill by being both vulnerable and hard as Nina, alongside her controlling relative Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk) and questionable husband Toni (Oliver Jackson Cohen) – the threat of that family to Leda is palpable but subtle, simmering along under the surface.

More: Olivia Colman

The one blot on The Lost Daughter’s copybook is its length and subsequent pacing. Although Colman is honestly captivating doing almost anything, the film is in no rush to get to its conclusion, and trips up a little over its literary roots. This adaptation just needed a bit more tightening up for the screen, in contrast to a novel that can revell more freely in the small moments and minute details.

However, the film is one that should continue to fare well come awards season, as well as spark interesting discussion over society’s one-note dictations on motherhood.

The Lost Daughter is released in cinemas on January 7.

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