I really want to like The Lost Daughter. After all, it’s directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and stars two of my favourite actors, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley. The reviews I’ve read have all been glowing, so I’m expecting great things. And yet, in the end, it just doesn’t seem to have enough heft: it’s all build up, with weak foundations and no catharsis.
Colman and Buckley both play Leda Caruso. Buckley, of course, plays the younger iteration, a twenty-something post-grad student, struggling to balance her burgeoning academic career with the demands of her marriage and two young children. Time has rendered such issues less pressing for Colman’s Leda, who – approaching fifty – is now a professor, free to spend the summer alone on a Greek island, her adult daughters busy leading their own lives.
The movie opens with Colman’s Leda collapsing on the beach, so we know from the start that something isn’t right. In a series of flashbacks, we are shown what has brought Leda here, from the working-holiday immediately preceding her fall to the ‘crushing responsibility’ of motherhood that overwhelmed her younger self.
At first, the holiday seems idyllic. The island is undoubtedly beautiful; Leda’s apartment is charming; the sun is shining; the beach is quiet. There are hints that something is amiss: the mouldy fruit in the bowl; an insect buzzing on her pillow. But all seems well until a large, brash American family arrives, rudely interrupting Leda’s peace. When their matriarch, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), pregnant for the first time at forty-two, asks Leda to move her lounger so that the family can sit together, Leda stubbornly refuses. And an animosity is born that overshadows her whole stay…
Despite her instinctive dislike of the family, Leda finds herself drawn to Callie’s glamorous sister-in-law, Nina (Dakota Johnson), whose relationship with her daughter, Elena (Athena Martin), reminds Leda of her own past. When Elena goes missing, Leda helps to find her, and the two women form an uneasy bond.
So far, so good. As a character study, this film is wonderful. Leda is a complex and interesting woman, whose conflicting desires and ambivalence towards parenthood make her an all-too-rare sight on our screens. But, though it pains me to say it, the casting doesn’t quite work. No one can reasonably argue that Colman and Buckley aren’t terrific actors, and they both deliver here, offering detailed and nuanced performances. But they don’t cohere: their Ledas are two different people. It’s not just the way they look; audiences are used to suspending their disbelief on that account. They sound so very different though – Buckley’s sonorous tones at odds with Colman’s girlish, higher-pitched voice – and their movement doesn’t match either.
Gyllenhaal’s direction isn’t bad. She utilises close-ups to excellent effect, and really ramps up the tension: a sense of all-pervading menace is cleverly evinced. But what’s the point, I wonder, if it never amounts to anything? I’m left frustrated by the damp squib of an ending, with nothing calamitous ever revealed or resolved.
A little internet searching shows me the missing piece: in Elena Ferrante’s source novel, Leda is from Naples (instead of ‘Shipley, near Leeds’) and the invading family is also Neapolitan. The sense of dread Leda feels when she encounters them isn’t just snobbery, it’s actual fear, based on her own past, and her own experience of a Mafia-style clan. Perhaps it’s this change that makes Leda’s sense of foreboding harder to understand – and weakens the story in the process.
It feels like a squandered opportunity.