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Untangling Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter

The new Netflix drama’s web of allusions and alliterations are its key.

Olivia Colman stands against a white wall, half hidden with shadows.
Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter.
Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s all in the names: Leda, Elena, Nina, Mina, sounding like aural anagrams of one another. They belong to Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, the kind of good novel in which nothing is by accident; Maggie Gyllenhaal’s new film adaptation preserves many of the nods and nuggets that Ferrante buried in the book. Like shells and shiny pebbles buried in beach sand, the characters’ names, like the women themselves, refract through one another and throw off new light.

The movie captures the spirit of the novel well. It’s suspenseful, but it’s not a thriller; there are elements of obsession and eroticism, but they never quite go where you expect. The end is deeply ambiguous, neither punishing nor condoning its characters’ behavior. It simply asks us to sit with them — to pay them the respect of attention, and learn something about ourselves in the process.

Gyllenhaal (who received permission from Ferrante to adapt the novel, as long as she also personally directed it) shifts a few things from the novel for practicality’s sake, turning Ferrante’s middle-aged protagonist Leda, an Italian professor of English literature from Naples, into a British professor of comparative literature, now living in “Cambridge, near Boston.” (Translation: She’s at Harvard.) Other characters similarly become Americans on holiday, circumventing language issues and taking away one of the novel’s main explorations, which is the way that Leda’s background in Naples, with its criminal undercurrent, influences how she interacts with a family of Neapolitans she encounters on the beach. A few story beats are moved around — a big reveal that happens early in the book is held till later in the movie — but for the most part it’s a faithful adaptation.

And yet you can see Gyllenhaal’s fingerprints on the story in a few of the changes. In the novel, Leda’s working holiday is in Italy. In the movie, Leda (Olivia Colman, in what seems like an obvious next Oscar-nominated role) heads instead to a small Greek town. She spends an idyllic first day on a paradisiacal beach, reading and making notes on Dante’s Paradiso. But her balmy paradise is interrupted by the arrival of a boisterous Greek-American family from Queens, who come to the island on an extended holiday. She finds herself watching a young woman named Nina (Dakota Johnson), who’s occupied with her sister-in-law Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), pregnant with her first, and her own young daughter Elena. (That Elena shares a name with Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym, seems, at least, worth noting.)

A young woman stands near the shore, looking over her shoulder. A little girl is behind her, with her hands on her.
Dakota Johnson and Athena Martin in The Lost Daughter.

Watching Nina and Elena interact, Leda starts to think of her daughters Bianca and Marta, now 25 and 23 and living half a world away from this beach. Her memories come back in flashes — memories of when her children were small and she was a young scholar (played by Jessie Buckley), frantically trying to continue her own work while their noise and childish rambunctiousness drove her to distraction. The feelings of white-hot frustration, that you might simply explode with it, start to leach into her present pleasant placidity.

Leda’s memories grow stronger, bleeding into her present. Blurred, closely-shot images of skin and lips and sunshine and hair could be now or forever ago. They stir uncomfortable truths, unlocking emotions she’s pushed away, bringing them like bruises to the surface. That’s not to say that The Lost Daughter is a morality tale of redemption — not at all. And yet, Leda’s own behavior in the present is perplexing even to herself. It often goes unexplained in the film, but it’s also strangely and uncomfortably emotionally legible. Beneath her prickly but calm exterior flail spasms of unspeakable, almost unthinkable desperation that she hasn’t quelled.

Leda’s name is close to Elena’s; Nina’s is too. When Leda was a child, she tells Nina, she had a doll named Mina. (Nina thinks she said “Nina,” and Leda corrects her.) The names trip and swirl across the tongue, mixing into one another, and so do the characters: Leda, the mother of two daughters, reminded by Nina, mother of Elena, of herself. Elena’s doll triggers something in Leda’s memory of her own little Mina. (In the book, Elena’s doll is named Nani, and Elena pretends she is pregnant; in both cases, there is in fact something inside the doll.)

And all these permutations come from Leda at the center, whose own name is a bit of a key. It’s inextricably linked to the myth of Leda and the Swan, in which the god Zeus takes on the form of a swan and rapes a girl named Leda. She gives birth to Helen of Troy, and thus the act brings about the end of an epoch in Greece.

As a younger woman, Leda — our Leda, the comparative literature scholar — was fascinated with Yeats, translating his poetry into Italian. One of Yeats’s poems was in fact about Leda and the Swan, which Yeats saw as ending one of the great epochs of history, as important as the announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would bear Jesus, and as important as a third cataclysmic event that Yeats believed was impending in his time. (Another of Yeats’s most well-known poems, “The Second Coming,” the one that ends with the famous line about “slouching towards Bethlehem,” was about that next cataclysm. In the film, Leda, a little tipsy, mistakenly quotes “The Second Coming” — “things fall apart; the center cannot hold” — when she’s trying to talk about Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.”)

A man and a woman in close embrace.
Peter Sarsgaard and Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter.

In Leda’s memories, the smarmy but alluring Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard, perfectly cast by his wife) quotes Yeats in Italian to her younger self, wooing her at an academic conference. He seems like he’ll be the seismic event in Leda’s life. But in the end, Hardy is more of a blip in Leda’s world. So is Leda’s husband, whom she divorces. So are the various men in Nina’s family, menacing but stupid. Men interrupt Leda constantly. She warms to the kindly caretaker of the flat (Ed Harris), who interrupts her solitude, only when she realizes he has no interest in judging her life. She despises the raucous teenage boys who ruin her moviegoing and hurl insults at her, who only shut up when another man yells at them. But they all remain on the periphery. Men are, in the world of Leda and Nina and Elena and even Mina, deeply beside the point, satellites orbiting around their central world, annoyances to be dealt with and expelled or dangers to be dodged.

Yet each of these women live a life still structured by male intrusions, expectations, and impositions. The reference to Zeus’s apocalyptic, cataclysmic rape of Leda, which results in Helen, another woman whose mere existence so agitates men that they launch the Trojan War, is pointed. Leda is experiencing all of this on a beach in Greece to underline the point: mothers and daughters, for millennia, are always living in that brutal world of men, and trying to carve out their own world inside of it.

Leda — our Leda, here in the present, on the beach — found a bitter kind of way to carve out her own corner in the world. But in the end she can’t outrun the facts of the world in which she lives. She is happy and miserable, full of love and also frustrated by it. She’s no heroine, not someone to emulate. But as she sees herself in Nina and even in Elena, they can spot a kind of future in her; they’re all of a piece with one another. Daughters like them, and mothers too, are always getting lost in the world. The older they get, the more they realize it’s their own responsibility to find themselves.

The Lost Daughter is playing in limited theaters and streaming on Netflix.

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