I had high hopes for The Lost Daughter when it was first being advertised. A two-hour star-studded Netflix thriller centred around a woman’s seaside trip, which takes a dark turn when her obsession with a young mother forces her to confront her past? Consider me plonked down on the sofa.
I hadn’t read any reviews, just heard about it on the radio (yes, I am 80). I knew it was Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut and that it had gathered a lot of awards buzz, with everyone raving about its Oscar-worthiness.
However, I found the film to be a total yawn fest. ‘Pretentious’ would be the word I’d use to describe it. It had the feel of a long music video, the character studies were superficial with zero substance whatsoever, and there were far too many plot lines which ultimately led nowhere, culminating in a disappointing, anticlimactic ending. Essentially, it was a bit sh*t.
I expected more from Gyllenhaal, who I believe to be a very talented actor, but I suppose I should’ve reminded myself that acting ability doesn’t always correspond with directing ability. Hollywood regularly yields mixed results when it comes to professional actors trying their hand at directing; some transition with ease, while others don’t fare so well. Based upon this outing, I’d say Maggs falls decidedly into the latter category.
Don’t get me wrong, I like that the film uses a realistic lens to explore motherhood, which is so often glamorised in our society. It sparks an important conversation about how, despite marked improvements in this area, many women still bear the bulk of parental responsibility for their children, when that maternal instinct to put another life before one’s own isn’t as inherent as we like to think.
A woman who places her needs and goals in life above those of her children is viewed as doubly deviant, because we are so determined to fit women into the designated role of ‘mother’. Take the recurring motif of the doll in the film as an example; little girls are unquestioningly given dolls to take care of and nurture as a form of gender socialisation. I remember getting a doll on Christmas Day when I was a kid and having my first insight into what childcare looks like: I changed it, rocked it, and fed it sachets of strange powdery food included in the box which it then reliably expelled all over my nice dress.
So I’m all for the film representing the unutterable struggle of mothers to meet constant demands for maternal attention (and affection, as we see in one scene, where the protagonist Leda ignores her daughter’s desperate, wailing pleas for her to kiss her finger-cut better). I just think it should have had a much stronger focus.
“Children are a crushing responsibility,” Leda says poignantly at one point in the film, giving an intense, discomforting stare. And it’s the stares that are my problem with the film. Staring, but not saying anything. Bit of dialogue, more stares. I cannot stand when a film tries so hard to be suggestive, symbolic and ‘deep’ like a media student’s wet dream, where you’re able to interpret each scene in so many ways, but there’s not actually anything nuanced going on behind it all. For instance, there’s this whole part where Leda randomly gets hit by a pinecone (that’s plain dumb) which people are reading far too much into online. Viewers have also been extremely confused about the film’s vague, ambiguous ending.
To me, it seems The Lost Daughter was hastily patched together. “We don’t have a lot of money and we don’t have a lot of time and it’s a pandemic,” Gyllenhaal chortles in one interview, “and uh we’re shooting everything on this island in Greece.” This doesn’t really excuse that the editing is rather poor, with quick cuts, close-ups and flashbacks being messily integrated.
But by far the most irritating part of watching the film was the holiday-envy. Set in an idealistic Greek resort, the sight of Cornetto cones and flip-flops was too much for me to bear after two years living through a pandemic in Scotland.
Featured image credit: Entertainment Weekly