Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” Is Slow, Uneven, and a Major Achievement
About a month ago, when I first watched “The Lost Girl,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel, I was sure something was missing. Although I have never read the book, the film left me in no doubt that the novel was written as a first person narrative, filled with memories, perceptions, ideas and ideas. directly expressed emotions of the protagonist. This impression, confirmed in fact, highlights the essential failure of this accomplished film: the reduction of a literary source to the framework of a plot. In addition, this replacement of the reflected voice with a dramatic performance reduces the emotion, psychology and intellectual power of the story. That leaves the film both too short and too long, a long, slender narrative, and a vast one crammed into a two hour span with excessive brevity and haste.
The film (which airs on Netflix) begins at night, with a woman in white (Olivia Colman) crawling along a beach and collapsing on the shore. The rest of the film returns to this vague catastrophe. The woman is Leda Caruso, a 48-year-old literature professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts. During part of the summer, she rents a floor in a beach house on the fictional Greek island of Kyopeli, where she plans to use seclusion for work. She parks on a lounge chair by the sea, pulls out a book (Dante’s Paradiso), scribbles in her notebook (nothing on screen long enough to read) and asks a friendly young assistant, an Irish business student. twenty-four year old named Will (Paul Mescal) – for a popsicle. But the arrival of a big and boisterous Greek American family from Queens, with many rowdy young men and active little children, becomes a distraction. There is an ambient and latent violence in the presence of the men, an intrinsic aggression against the loud-voiced women, and Leda soon comes into conflict with the great clan, but this is appeased amicably by the young matriarch Callie ( Dagmara Dominczyk), who apologizes and befriends Leda. The professor’s bond with family tightens when a toddler in the group – a girl whose mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), is Callie’s younger sister-in-law – gets lost and Leda, joining in on the search, finds her.
The strongest effect the family has on Leda is mnemonic: Seeing young mothers with young daughters evokes memories of her own years earlier, nearly two decades ago, when her two daughters (now in their twenties) ) were young children. Numerous flashbacks punctuating much of the film show what her life was like at the time, as young Leda (Jessie Buckley) struggled to cope with the demands of raising children while pursuing her college career; her husband, Joe (Jack Farthing), also an academic, faced similar demands but referred them to Leda. In her frustration, Leda left the family, divorced her husband and did not see the children for three years. Now, with the large and vigorous family in full view, her attention and memories are fixed on one detail: the lost girl is fiercely attached to a doll, as was one of Leda’s young daughters, and as the ‘was Leda herself. Leda, seeing the doll abandoned on the beach, steals it and hides it, transforming it into a sort of fetish: bathing it, dressing it, cuddling it.
These elements all provide heartbreaking, fascinating, and moving objects of consciousness without the consciousness that holds them together. The film’s distillation of subjective memory and elaborate pictorial reflection is suggested without being realized, as the director’s strategy that holds the drama together is vague and diffuse. Leda’s perspective is evoked in point-of-view shots that evoke immediate perception and emotion: images of men jostling each other in the sea, women closely entangled in the tumult of family life, and the lost daughter. alone in a rocky corner everything seems evocative not of a simple detail of the facts, but of Leda’s varied responses to the events, to the characters. These instant and volatile responses, however, remain unanchored – they are both dramatically and psychologically insignificant – and that depends as much on Gyllenhaal’s direction as it is on his scriptwriting.
The film offers an urgent sense of closeness, starting with intense (but unimaginative) close-ups of Leda. (The cinematography is by Hélène Louvart, who has shot such remarkable films as “Just Anybody”, “Beach Rats”, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Happy as Lazzaro.”) But many scenes are composed only to illustrate events and offer little sense of physical presence and action, even in scenes of crucial physical importance, such as when Leda picks up and hides the doll, an event the film leaves ambiguous, as if the decisive moment risked absurdity or wickedness. The artifice of the prominence of this object, and the centrality of this theft in the character of Leda and in the plot, demands reality at both ends – physically, with a direct and detailed view, as in a detective drama, and psychologically, with reference to the layers of experience, memory and emotion of Leda. Instead, the visual and dramatic approximations create a symbol with little meaning but the cinematic concept of the literary.
There’s a very weird moment that suggests how drastically Gyllenhaal truncates Leda’s character. When, in one of the flashbacks, young Leda tells Joe that she is leaving, he threatens to hand the children over to their grandmother, Leda’s mother. Leda reacts with panic, declaring her childhood a “black shit hole”, and also with terror and contempt, reminding Joe that his mother never finished school. In the film, the remark seems subconsciously classist – loving, intelligent, and wise people do not lack with little formal education – and seems oddly inconsistent with the portrayal of Leda’s temperament that the film constructs. (Another thoughtless question about the peculiarities of the class is that American Greeks may exceed Leda’s money – they rent a large villa while she rents a modest apartment – but her remarkable intellectual sophistication is her social capital.) on his mother until I learned that in Ferrante’s novel the character of Leda is Neapolitan, that the family on the beach is also Neapolitan and implicitly from the underworld, that Leda fled the harshness of his family and from the midst of her city for her studies and career, and that the appearance of the family on the beach was not a mere general threat of aggression and vision of motherhood but a specific memory of the terrors of her own childhood.
Detaching Leda (who says her family origins are in the English town of Shipley) through ethnicity and experience the cultural and regional specifics of the disruptive beach family, Gyllenhaal drastically reduces character and drama – and, most importantly , sheds light on the power of today’s seaside scenes. The overwhelming impact of seeing the virtual return of one’s own dreadful past on the beach is replaced by generic dismay at the aggressive clamor of the beach family. The film centers the drama of Leda’s current and cluttered loneliness on the stress of her life as a young mother and her leap to independence by separating from her children. The film places dramatic importance on Leda’s relationships with the young women of the rowdy family: To Callie, who is forty-two years old and pregnant with her first child, Leda offers a candid and invigorating take on the struggles of motherhood as that “overwhelming responsibility”. His bond with Nina revolves around the doll, until further dramatic complications emerge late in the action. Leda’s relationship with Will (for whom she seems to have glimmers of sexual or romantic interest) and with her elderly owner, Lyle (Ed Harris), who awkwardly flirts with her, are nothing but teasing about her states of affairs. spirit, his desires, his present life. Yet these barely sketched relationships, seemingly tied to defining events of the past, become major plot points that suggest the mechanics of storyline construction instead of dramatic necessity.
Gyllenhaal gives the most moving weight to the story of the young rising professor and scholar whose ambitions risk being thwarted by the demands of motherhood. The current story that frames it is weakened by the transformation of a novel into bare bones of a plot that throws aside the voice, the mental activity, which energizes it. There’s a more daring adaptation that struggles to escape this one – one that would develop these scenes at length, turning Leda’s drama as a young mother into something more than a handful of downright causal attachments, and center the voice that gives life to the present. Instead, the movie from “The Lost Daughter” falls in between and does not do justice to any period in Leda’s life, or the character in general.
Its dramatic shortcuts notwithstanding, “The Lost Daughter” is a major achievement, for it is, in its very essence, a kind of meta-movie: it embodies and signifies a genre of film that is itself woefully rare. It is a film which, by adapting a novel by Ferrante, indicates the cruel lack in current cinema of dramas which do what we do all the time in literary fiction: to consider the lives of women in intimate details and to the light of a deep-rooted experience. The crucial subject of “The Lost Daughter” is the sad fact that it is exceptional, that there is no Elena Ferrante in the cinema. Whatever conventions and shortcuts to the literary adaptation the film reflects, Gyllenhaal challenged filmmakers and producers, the film industry as a whole, and the future of art.