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The Lost Daughter

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s spellbinding and sensitive close adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel is a haunting account of conflicted motherhood, powered by exquisitely subtle performances

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

Reading Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel The Lost Daughter shortly after watching Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film adaptation is to discover something relatively unsurprising: that the adaptation takes few liberties with Ferrante’s text. Instead, the film communicates the delicate intricacies of the novel on screen, in an astonishing work of cross-medium translation. Gyllenhaal’s screenplay follows a direction already laid out, yet it never puts a foot wrong in its subtle, respectful deviations. Parenthetical first-person observations have been deftly moved into dialogue – such as the phrase ‘children are a crushing responsibility’, which feels like something of a mission statement for the film (or is at least the thesis The Lost Daughter is testing). At other moments though, Gyllenhaal’s writing simply trusts the precision and subtlety of her performers. Her faith is particularly rewarded by the ever-brilliant Olivia Colman, as protagonist Leda, and the even more astonishing Jessie Buckley, Leda’s younger self, who both wring out textual nuances that could only work, in words, on the page.

The Lost Daughter is a stunning, short shiver of a novel. The film is comparatively more languorous (though of course it takes about half as long to watch as it does to read the book). Where Gyllenhaal breathes most air into Ferrante’s taut writing is in the flashbacks – extending them and grading them with a richer, brighter colour palette, than the paradoxically chillier, washed-out Greek beach scenes. Gyllenhaal privileges the past a little more than the book does, and so the film becomes more about memory – as well as the pain, joy and regret that can come with motherhood.

Gyllenhaal’s careful close reading of the text leads her to elevate some of Ferrante’s sublime throwaways to pride of place. A brief line about the nearby lighthouse becomes a recurring image, as its brilliant light streams into the flat, disrupting her sleep and creating the impression of consistent scrutiny and observation. Later, a sequence where her husband picks up hitchhikers is relocated from their car to a house – perhaps to make the filming technically simpler – but the effect is well-judged. As the young Leda drinks and sings with her (previously unwanted) visitors, there is a particularly static oasis of calm created; it is a rest stop on the rambler’s journey, but also a moment for Leda to pause herself, and take stock of whether she really wants to stay with her husband. After their departure, Leda stares at the slept-in guest bed, with an intricate mixture of longing, desire and grief.

Ed Harris and Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

In his review in The New Yorker – which calls the film ‘a major achievement’, but also ‘sluggish’ and ‘spotty’ – Richard Brody argues that the film’s failure lies in its ‘reduction of a literary source to the framework of a plot.’ While I dispute this thoroughly, he also argues that the film should have been more literal in places – suggesting that the theft of the doll (a scene of ‘crucial physicality’) should have been shown on screen. ‘The artifice of that object’s prominence, and that theft’s centrality to the character of Leda and to the plot, cries out for reality at both ends—physically, with a straightforward and detailed view, as in a crime drama, and psychologically, with reference to the layers of Leda’s experience, memory, and emotion’, Brody writes. Though his underlying contention that film is a far more physical medium that prose is entirely reasonable and true, reading the novel confirms what perhaps remains a little uncertain in the film: there is no explanation that has been cut.

Here, Gyllenhaal mirrors the novel exactly, especially in the unsettling impossibility of answering the question of why Leda took the doll. It is as if Leda has momentarily forgotten herself, realising what she has done only when the action had already been completed. The reveal of the stolen doll, secreted among Leda’s books, is as cryptically elusive on the page: ‘I had taken the doll, she was in my bag.’ Leda herself does not know why she has done it, but reckoning with this impulse, and attempting to give the doll back, will drive the film onwards. The Lost Daughter is not about a woman who steals a doll, but instead about someone who finds herself having done so, before being trapped by the peculiar gravity it exerts upon her.

What taking the doll is supposed to achieve for Leda is deliberately unclear, and we spend most of the duration peering with unsettled curiosity – trying to figure out what it is supposed to be a substitute for. By drawing a veil over the theft itself, it simultaneously seems like a potential act of cruelty, desperation, petty revenge, or even love. Perhaps she is jealous of Nina’s superficially happier experience of motherhood – though by the end, Nina declares ‘I can’t take it anymore’ – or it could be an attempt to assert power in small way. A quietly devastating scene sees Leda attend a film screening, only for a group of raucous youths to traipse in, noisily talking over the film. When she tells them to be quiet, they mock her, and she leaves in shame. Though a poised intellectual, seemingly secure in her academic abilities, Leda almost has an underlying vulnerability, powerlessness, or insecurity about her place in the world.

Fiction frequently treats dolls as uncanny substitutes. A cursory Freudian reading of an obsession with a doll might suggest that it is the recipient of rerouted desires – some kind of maternal instinct forcefully visited upon it. Where the novel is rather vague about the psychological substitution at work, Gyllenhaal’s potent imagery implies that the doll may be a surrogate for Leda’s own childhood doll, which, when vandalised by her daughter, she flung out of the top-storey window. The most striking shot of the film is a brief close-up of the doll shattering on the street below. Yet Ferrante and Gyllenhaal keenly suggest themes of replacement and iteration, in subtle, almost game-like ways. Characters repeatedly mishear names, which Ferrante positions to be deliberately tricksy. Nina’s daughter is nicknamed Ledù, but called Elena – itself a significant name for being shared with Ferrante, though the author is famously pseudonymous. Elena’s doll is called Nani (an anagram of Nina, her mother) – making the doll not a substitute child but instead a strange maternal surrogate, a pacifier that stops her from crying. Leda and Elena chime, Rosaria mishears Leda as ‘Neda’, and the characters Gino and Gianni are Rosaria and Leda’s husband and ex- respectively. (Gyllenhaal anglicises the names of now-American and British characters, other than Leda, however.)

Into this tangled mesh, Leda christens the stolen doll Mina – another variation on Nina, but quite different to Elena’s ‘Nani’. (Perhaps ‘Mina’ carries a ring of ‘mine’, or ‘mine now’?) In his ‘Philosophy of Toys’, Charles Baudelaire wrote that he ‘believe[d] that generally children dominate their toys’, yet he also says ‘I would not assert that the contrary does not sometimes happen – I mean that toys do not sometimes dominate children.’ Though he couches himself in a thicket of negatives, Baudelaire formulates the relationship of children to toys as one of – rather shocking – power, domination, and perhaps even violence, potentially in both directions. The Lost Daughter makes a compelling case for extending this formulation to adulthood, with Leda alternating between hiding, locking away, and slamming the doll into the bin, and being compelled to tenderly nursing it back to health. She washes the sand out of it and buys new clothes in a colour she finds more tasteful. (She must quickly devise an alibi when into the toy shop comes Nina.) Leda’s actual motive is inscrutable, but this seems to be the point. This richly symbolic object has become the subject of multiple cruelties and dominations, while also exerting a powerful aura – almost as if it made Leda take it. When she finally returns it, Nina responds with violent shock, driving a hatpin into Leda’s side – who sits down on the sofa in pained silence, utterly baffled by what has occurred.

Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter

Undoubtedly the most powerful scenes are those set in the past, with Jessie Buckley’s gripping turn as the younger Leda – crushed and ‘suffocating’ with her two infant toddlers. The young child’s ultimatum ‘I’ll give you three seconds to come back’ presents almost as much of a gut-wrench in the trailer as in the film, while Buckley’s suffocation is evoked in claustrophobic close-ups and the palpable summer heat. The film is somewhat psychoanalytic in its return to the past, searching for answers as to how Leda has arrived at the present. Yet Buckley elevates what could be a cryptic turn, into something desperate – grieving for a joy that she cannot find, prompting her significant exit in which she leaves her husband and children. The film swells with elation when, attending a literary conference, a softly spoken, avuncular English professor (Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard) picks out her work by name as worthy of regard. The ensuing affair between them is a moment of transgressive relief and seems inevitable from the moment Gyllenhaal trains the camera on Buckley’s smile, as his public praise washes warmly over her.

The novel and film both reckon with these ethically fraught moments of abandon; in them, Leda transcends her exhausting circumstances and feels herself. At the heart of The Lost Daughter – the open wound probed at almost twenty years later – is Leda’s parental regret, and her decision to leave her husband and children, not seeing them for two years. To be dissatisfied with one’s children remains something of a cultural taboo; the scales generally tip towards children – and how their forms of unhappiness can be traced back to overbearing parenting, or neglect. There is also, without doubt, a strong social pressure to have children – which is felt far more by women than men. Yet this is partially offset by what is now a defined counterculture of antinatalism – driven by philosophical, ethical, feminist, or often simply financial considerations – though this far from neutralises the damage to those who choose not to have children – or find they cannot. Ferrante and Gyllenhaal try to negotiate a third category: those who have children but regret the decision. The film is an extended attempt to articulate this potentially unspeakable, usually unspoken sentiment.

Children are undoubtedly a significant source of regret – either in the having or the not having of them – and parents must generally grieve, in some large or small way, the passage from infancy to adulthood, and the inevitable deviation from the path expected or most desired for them. Leda’s description of motherhood as a ‘crushing responsibility’ – especially when delivered in dialogue to a pregnant Rosaria – perhaps threatens to overwhelm the film’s conception of children. Colman’s sincerity is so compelling that it would be easy to mistake this gently delivered, yet weighty judgement as the film’s view. Yet though Gyllenhaal is best at depicting the suffocation and claustrophobia of motherhood – made worse by the apathy of Leda’s husband, during the flashbacks – there are some powerful moments which counterbalance this.

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

The film’s final shot sees the Leda sat on the beach, peeling an orange. This is used as a recurring motif by Gyllenhaal, encapsulating a subtle joy from childhood: peeling the fruit in a single motion, so that the peel remains in one piece – like a snake. Yet it epitomises the devastating high-wire act of parenthood – the licence to share childish joys again, mixed with the impending worries that something might give way. ‘Don’t let it break. Peel it like a snake’, they chant, in the final shot of the film, which flashes back to a bright, warm beach of a past holiday. Though there is delight in this moment, breakage and rupture are not far away.

Sitting on a Greek beach in the present day, Leda answers her phone. ‘I saw Marta’s name, I felt a great contentment, I answered’, Ferrante writes, her normally poised sentences here running into one, the narrative voice perhaps dizzy from Leda’s stab wound. The words tell of a joy, alien for much of the novel, as Leda delights in her children with a relatively straightforward affection. It feels like the curtains being pulled back, the sun allowed in. I found Gyllenhaal’s ending to be a little more ambivalent, however – certainly regarding Leda’s motherhood. Instead of a sudden rush of relief, pleasure and satisfaction, Colman maintains the patina of uncertainty. Yet in cutting between this ambivalent present and a pocket on joy in the past, Gyllenhaal reveals the hope that was there from the beginning but was not enough to sustain Leda. As she says on phone, ‘I’m dead, but I’m fine.

The Lost Daughter

Directed and Adapted by Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, Starring Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Domińczyk, Jack Farthing, Oliver Jackson-Cohen

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