The term ‘slow-burn’ is so casually tossed these days that it seems to lose its relevance. Any film with a mystery with an unpredictable twist that is reserved only for its end is termed as a slow-burn these days. In such an increasingly busy world, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut burns in slow motion, and in the truest sense of the word it does. But there’s not really a label that The Lost Daughter doesn’t truly resist.
Middle-aged Leda is on her working holiday at a beach. One summer afternoon, when she has not even wiped her fingers off her cornetto, she finds her isolation invaded by a wealthy holidaying family and a bunch of local rowdies. When she refuses to displace her chair for this family, she’s met by almost threatening glances by its men. Later on, she finds herself slightly obsessed by Nina, a young woman from this family who has a little girl. Later on, in her repression, she finds reflections of her own past life, away from her kids and her marital fidelity. In between are twisted, savory flirtations with men young and old, and a small, strange act of violence that churns something out of Leda, perhaps forever.
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It’s no secret by now. In cinema, trips to distant lands shift something outside our protagonists- either inside or the outside. For the better or for the worse. The same is true for the literature. But Elena Ferrante’s novel truly changed something. Leda’s unguided spirit became some kind of a guiding force for me, to coast through and embrace the female gaze at its most personal. But when its stunning meditation turned thrillingly campy, it sent a shiver through my palm as it rushed to change the page. And so, I didn’t quite know what to expect from it being transformed into a debut feature film- a surge of campiness or a reach to the meditation.
Thankfully, Maggie Gyllenhaal strongly goes for the flow. She does stay faithful to the ambiance and vision of Ferrante, but she’s also unafraid of being audacious with the material. She sublimely traverses the interplay of lights, as if it were an interplay of cinematographic lights.
More importantly, it’s a subtle statement that she has made in The Lost Daughter. This is what we can call a statement with a statement. The core of this story shifts from discomfort to utter pain. But Maggie seems to be marrying the content with something profoundly personal. She churns out an undeniable truth and feeling out of it. But in that pursuit, she never over-simplifies things. This is a layered and complex character study that is revealing on submission. It puts the female gaze on a pedestal and gives it a stinging embrace. Deeply brusque secrets about motherhood are peeled off like onions. Open display of affection becomes some kind of a burden. And in the end, a small set of events hits you like a cataclysm.
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The director’s lens is full of observance, and the technical department pays off with perseverance. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s visuals brim with a delicate sense of form, crafting out the literature of the surroundings with the movements of the light. Katerina Zourari and Edward K Gibbon’s costumes are so minimal and flourishing that they become unsung characters of their own. The score by Dickon Hinchliffe is excellent- it punctuates some of the film’s pauses with a sense of lost pleasure. Affonso Gonçalves’s editing (previously seen in Paterson and Only Lovers Left Alive) is brilliant- it slides through the film’s intercutting timelines without a false note.
But it’d be a lie to deny the fact that Olivia Colman singularly brings together the film. In what might just be the finest performance of the year, she truly proves herself. Yes, she has already, but this comes for one of the most difficult characters ever. Leda is someone who seems like an offspring of a carefully calibrated mind-frame. She’s layered, complex, and even chilling. However, beneath all those intertwined threads, there’s a simple human being who is beautifully relatable. In Leda lies the key to success- only if she’s simplified, can she work on screen. However, Olivia doesn’t need such trappings. She effortlessly combines the sophistication and simplistic charm of Leda. And the results are masterful.
Jessie Buckley proves her mettle by matching the comparatively lesser challenge of conveying Leda’s younger, more unhinged tang. She’s sensuously effective and keeps herself with impressive restraint. Dakota Johnson is absolutely terrific as Nina- her sensuous youth is at odds with her disarming repression as a woman. These are lost daughters in a world with almost too many sons, and they are portrayed with an offhand efficiency.
The Lost Daughter is a wonderfully conceived film. Essentially, it’s a spectacularly sustained directorial debut. It might just be my favorite film of the year.
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