The Lost Daughter / Frau im Dunkeln

Director: Maggie Gyllenhall (USA, UK, Israel, Greece). Year of Release: 2021

A Greek holiday resort. Leda is a professor of comparative literature, so she’s brought a suitcase full of books on holiday with her. The village seems nice enough but people keep wanting to talk her when she looks like she’d prefer her own company. And what’s with the lighthouse light shining through her window, the rotten fruit in the fruit bowl and the huge insect that she finds on her pillow?

Leda struggles to get sunbathing right, at first flicking her way through large academic texts. By the time she’s just about ready to lie back and enjoy the sun, the relative stillness is broken when a large Greek-US-American family arrives. A pregnant woman tells the others that Leda will move her beach lounger to give them some space. Leda retorts that she won’t.

Leda seems particularly interested to two members of the group – Nina and her young daughter Elena. Sometimes there’s a man with them – presumably the husband/father, more often not. Then, Elena goes missing and while everyone else is in a blind panic, Leda goes off and finds her. She starts to have flashbacks of a similar occasion with one of her daughters back when she was much younger.

The film then switches between two separate timelines – present day Greece, where Leda is played by Olivia Colman and at the beginning of her academic career, where she’s played by Jessie Buckley. Present-day Leda starts to behave slightly strangely, not least when she steals Elena’s doll, and mothers it like it is child. Meanwhile, young Leda finds motherhood increasingly infuriating and contemplates an affair with an older academic.

So, what’s it all about? Clearly watching Nina and Elena reminds Leda of contentious decisions that she has made in the past. And it is quite possible that the feeling is mutual and Nina is wondering whether she will end up like Leda. Both women worry that they have transgressed by not acting in the way that women are supposed to behave (at one point, Leda refers to herself as an “unnatural mother”).

So far, so interesting. But does it actually work? Well, here’s a problem that I had (other views are permissible). The big existential problems thrown up are mainly those which affect young Leda. This means that whenever the camera moves to Greece, however much I appreciated the acting, I was urging it to get back to the past where the real discussion was going on.

This has the effect of minimizing some of the main talking points. Leda contemplates leaving her kids, which is, of course a big deal in a way that it would not be if she were a man. Men are leaving kids alone with their mothers all the time. Looking at Leda in Greece, we can see how this turmoil has fucked her up, but we spend most of time looking at effects, not causes. I didn’t feel that we were confronted enough with the scale of young Leda’s heartbreaking dilemma.

The Lost Daughter also suffers from something that is common to many films which are adaptations of books. Some characters, some scenes, just hang there with no obvious relationship to the plot. In a novel, they would be given some time to breathe. Here they feel strange. It may have been better either to give them more space or to take them out entirely. Books and films do not have the same pace, they are consumed in a different amount of time. The timing is different.

This seems to affect classic literature more than pulp fiction. The Godfather and Jaws were also book adaptations that seemed to work as films. I haven’t read Elena Farrante’s original book of the Lost Daughter, but apparently it comes highly recommended. With its references of Yeats and Greek myth, it has at least pretensions towards High Art.

Such pretensions are often realised. The characters are articulate and interesting. The cast of actors is also stellar, and the film is never less than superbly acted. But you do get a nagging feeling that The Lost Daughter isn’t quite as profound as it thinks it is. I’m not sure whether this is a problem with the book or the film, but for all the good points, you have a feeling that its missing some heart or soul.

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