The Movie That Understands the Secret Shame of Motherhood

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of The Lost Daughter challenges Hollywood’s ideas about what women owe to their children—and to themselves.

Olivia Colman lying on her back half submerged in the ocean

Maggie Gyllenhaal has a theory that the mothers we see on-screen tend to fall into one of two categories. First, there’s the “fantasy mother,” who’s perfect in every way except when she has, say, some oatmeal on her sweater or runs a little late for a parent-teacher conference. On the flip side is the “monstrous mother,” who either mistreats her children or struggles with emotions that stifle her ability to parent; her story arc builds toward making her more palatable to viewers. Many films that attempt to rehabilitate an imperfect mother, such as Woman Under the Influence and Terms of Endearment, have been directed by great artists, and these characters have been played by great actors. And yet, Gyllenhaal told me over Zoom last month, with such movies, “you’re basically watching the destruction of this powerful life force.”

The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal’s first film as a writer-director, rejects this binary. The movie, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel and now streaming on Netflix, follows Leda, a middle-aged divorcée who abandoned her two daughters for three years when they were children. Her story is not an easy one to take in. On a solo vacation, Leda (played by Olivia Colman) becomes obsessed with a young mother and her child and—for reasons even she doesn’t understand—steals the girl’s beloved doll, upending the pair’s relationship. The novel “disturbed” Gyllenhaal when she first read it, but she resisted the urge to judge the character at its center. Instead, she probed a provocative assertion that Leda makes—“I’m an unnatural mother”—to create a film that challenges Hollywood’s frustratingly limiting portrayals of parenthood. “That’s a really brilliant line in the book, because what does that mean?” Gyllenhaal said. “What’s an unnatural mother? But really, the question that it’s asking is ‘What’s a natural mother?’”

The answer, as in Ferrante’s other works, can be found in the precision and emotional depth of the protagonist’s interior monologues. Reading Leda’s thoughts, to Gyllenhaal, felt almost like being let in on a secret: A woman could in fact be neither a good mother nor a bad mother, but something in between. Leda embodies this ambivalence. She dwells on what her now-adult daughters think of her, contemplates what to share about her past with her fellow vacationers, and fantasizes about other directions her life could have taken without children. “I felt comforted by knowing that these sort of … darker elements of my experience, I wasn’t alone in feeling,” Gyllenhaal, herself a mother of two, told me.

In her adaptation—the first English-language film based on a Ferrante work—Gyllenhaal aimed to invite the audience to inhabit Leda’s perspective and appreciate her insight. “It’s a dangerous thing to ask, to relate to this person,” Gyllenhaal said, noting the undeniable cruelty of stealing a child’s favorite toy. “She has to take the doll, but then the real challenge is Can you stay with her?” Viewers at early screenings questioned the character’s actions; one wondered whether Leda had to steal the doll. Even Ferrante herself, the mind behind the celebrated Neapolitan novels, has said that entering Leda’s head was like “venturing into dangerous waters without a life preserver.”

But to Gyllenhaal, the story exposes the myth of the “natural mother.” Films about parenting portray the exhaustion that comes with the task, but the bond between a mother and her child is typically shown to be unbreakable and sufficient motivation to overcome any fatigue. Gyllenhaal saw Leda as a fascinating exception: a person who can embrace and resent the job of caretaker in equal measure—and who is worthy of compassion all the same. “When we’re little we have to believe, because our survival depends on it, that our parents and maybe in particular our mothers … want nothing more than to mother us,” Gyllenhaal explained. “But the grown-up parts of ourselves must know … it’s overwhelming.” Leda actively tests society’s definition of a mother—she loves her daughters, but she can’t devote her entire self to them—and for that she carries both pride and shame. She feels, Gyllenhaal said, “the real despair, the real anxiety, the real terror that comes along with being alive.”

Dakota Johnson and Athena Martin at the beach

Given its off-putting premise and formidable protagonist, The Lost Daughter was already a thorny novel for Gyllenhaal to adapt. But Ferrante’s language also proved a challenge: Leda’s narration flows in fever-dream-like cascades of text, her mind racing from bursts of memories to meandering thoughts to colorful reveries to mundane asides about her vacation. To translate it to screen, Gyllenhaal had to find her own visual vocabulary.

That began with bottling Leda’s memories into a series of vivid flashbacks, in which the younger Leda is played by Jessie Buckley, and essentially blending two films into one. Buckley and Colman never worked together to create their respective interpretations of the same character 20 years apart, and Gyllenhaal didn’t step in to advise them to collaborate. “That was probably the biggest risk in the adaptation,” she told me of the decision not to impose consistency on the character from the outside. “In a movie that’s about trying to be as truthful and as honest as possible, I don’t want to trick the audience ever.”

But after committing to casting Buckley and Colman, Gyllenhaal realized that any contrasts in their portrayals would only motivate viewers to engage with Leda’s transformation. She went on to encourage her actors to find Leda on their own, telling Buckley, for example, to feel free to bleach her hair blond if she felt like it; a woman’s haircut could change dramatically over a lifetime, after all. “The difference between them actually really serves the movie,” Gyllenhaal explained. “The life that this woman had to live between being 28 and 48 is a really complicated, interesting life. And you get to imagine going from being Jessie Buckley to Olivia Colman, you know?”

When it came to Leda’s musings about motherhood, Gyllenhaal chose to echo the character’s internal tug-of-war by shifting tones. At times, The Lost Daughter plays like a horror-thriller—the beams from a nearby lighthouse flood Leda’s hotel room, casting ominous shadows around Colman—while at others, it feels like a romantic drama. Gyllenhaal bathes the young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), in a warm glow as she and her daughter, Elena (Athena Martin), play with the doll. The camera lingers, as if through Leda’s eyes, on Nina’s body as Elena pours water onto her mother’s skin, mimicking what she does to her toy—shots that convey Leda’s awe of, and maybe even desire for, their bond.

Much of the story is told in charged looks and gestures rather than in dialogue or voice-overs, helping keep Leda from being characterized as “crazy” for her perceived misdeeds. “There are aspects of all of us that are unlikable and mean, that are unkind,” Gyllenhaal explained. “This fantasy that … those parts of ourselves are not allowed to be expressed puts us in a box about our own relationship to the world.” Buckley’s younger Leda shifts from radiating tenderness to beastliness toward her daughters in the same scene. Right before she leaves them, she unpeels an orange into one long strand—like a “snake,” as the three of them call it—fulfilling a quiet ritual and an act of nurture only they share. And then, she barely looks at them as she exits the room and, for years, their lives.

A lesser story, perhaps, would have tried to bring closure or something resembling redemption for Leda. But that’s not how Ferrante’s novel ends, and it’s not how Gyllenhaal’s film, which alters the final scene, does either. In fact, Gyllenhaal gives Leda’s tale a gracefully surreal bent in its last moments, an audacious choice inspired by films such as Hal Ashby’s Being There and Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, that connects Gyllenhaal’s cinematic approach back to Ferrante’s interior language. “The movement of this movie, the real path to follow, is not whodunit or what’s going to happen because she [took the doll] … The real movement,” Gyllenhaal said, “is in her mind.”

The Lost Daughter, in other words, is a dare—a dare for viewers to visit the thoughts of an “unnatural mother,” set aside judgments, and stay a while, like a tourist alone on a beach in a foreign country, untangling her personal sentiments. Perhaps these guests will come away from the film unchanged. Or perhaps they’ll find comfort in getting to know a woman such as Leda, just as Gyllenhaal did. “I am a different person after having made this film,” she said. “I definitely put some heavy weights I was carrying around down.”

Related Podcast

Listen to Shirley Li discuss The Lost Daughter on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review:

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