Elena Ferrante’s book The Lost Daughter (2006) is a harsh look at motherhood, shattering the romantic view associated with the word like maternal love and sacrificial nurturing. The protagonist Leda is torn between the demanding duties of caring for two young daughters and her own academic career. Overwhelmed and feeling suffocated, she abandons her children Bianca and Martha, 7 and 5, for three years.
Years later, Leda has become a successful academic and divorced. Her two daughters are now grown up and living with their father in Toronto. While taking a working holiday at the Ionian seaside, a boisterous family disrupts her peace and solitude on the beach. Though annoyed by their rowdy interruption, she’s drawn to a young mother, Nina, who has to constantly attend to a clingy three-year-old daughter Elena. Memories gush out from her own experience as a young mother, and with that, guilt. However, her guilt may not be so much about her abandonment of her daughters but that she “felt amazing without them.”
For a short while on the beach, Elena is lost. Nina and all the family are frantic in search of her. Leda finds her and brings her back to the fold. Just as she does this good deed, she hides a doll that Elena is attached to dearly. The family is now frantic in finding the lost doll as Elena is inconsolable. She later admits to Nina that “I’m an unnatural mother.” Is that enough to excuse herself?
While Ferrante doesn’t offer a psycho-analytical explanation, she does drop hints as to Leda’s own family background in Naples, her father coming from violent and vulgar association. Her mother had threatened abandonment verbally to her children but never did. To Leda, her mother was better off escaping and disappeared. “How ashamed I was to have come out of the belly of such an unhappy person,” she laments.
Leda left her family at eighteen to go to Florence for more cultured and academic pursuit, determined to sever an undesirable family tie. While the little girl Elena is lost for a short while on the beach, Leda herself could well be the lost daughter that had never been found.
The Lost Daughter movie adaptation is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. She has a strong cast, notably Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown) as Leda. Colman slips into the character perfectly and gives a natural and nuanced performance. Jessie Buckley as young Leda is another appropriate choice. The talented singer actor plays an exhausted mother convincingly. While away from her daughters and husband at a conference, she has an affair with a prominent academic, Professor Hardy, played by Gyllenhaal’s husband Peter Sarsgaard, whose performance carries traces of another role he’d played years ago as the smooth seducer David in Carey Mulligan’s breakout feature An Education (2009).
Other supporting cast is also strong with Dakota Johnson as Nina and Ed Harris as Lyle the seaside rental caretaker. It’s interesting to see his short interactions with Leda reveal Leda’s unreliable perception of others. Paul Mescal plays Will who works at the beach, reprising an understated performance as in Normal People (2020, TV series), adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel.
Gyllenhaal has mastered the story idea aptly, developing the screenplay like a character study which it ought to be. The effect of a handheld roving camera adds immediacy and suspense as we follow Leda in her short but eventful seaside vacation. Patricia Highsmith comes to mind. Gyllenhaal has altered the Neapolitan protagonist and the rowdy family into American, Leda from Cambridge near Boston, and the disruptive family as American tourists.
The present is interspersed with flashbacks seamlessly to depict Leda’s early years as a young mother torn between the constant demands of child-caring and her personal needs and ambition. Professor Hardy during his lecture in the conference mentions a quote by Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” At the time, to a young and rising academic, the relevance had not sunk in for Leda.
Overall a stirring screen adaptation with superb performance. However, one crucial element in the book has been left out and just replaced with a few dialogues and that’s Leda’s own family background and a mother who had always wanted to abandon her children. The lack of a more solid backstory about Leda’s own upbringing stirs up questions as to her present behaviour. Of course, as a two-hour movie, Gyllenhaal has the difficult task of choosing what to leave out from the book. The missed component of Leda’s own lack of maternal attention while growing up could have stripped off a deeper layer in the storytelling.
The ending is reaffirming. It’s good to know that Leda’s two daughters are forgiving young women, as they care for their mother and check up on her via long distance while she’s by herself on a seaside vacation in Greece. It’s good to see too that ‘bad mothering’ doesn’t need to perpetuate.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
The Lost Daughter is now streaming on Netflix.