Wednesday, December 15, 2021

A haunting, complex look at motherhood


    Count me among those who consider Olivia Colman indispensable.
    Colman has played Queen Elizabeth in The Crown and has taken on a variety of other characters in a growing body of work.
    If you can think of a time when Colman’s performance missed the mark, leave a comment. I can’t.
    Colman stars in The Lost Daughter, a film in which actress Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut.
    Adapted from a novel by Elena Ferrante — best known for My Brilliant Friend — Lost Daughter establishes itself as a fearless exploration of motherhood with all its deep affections and charged resentments.
   Colman’s performance skillfully embodies the movie's themes without ever asking for sympathy. She creates a character who can be chilly and difficult, an academic capable of insight and cruelty.
   Slowly and in carefully calibrated fashion, Gyllenhaal moves through the story — although not without leaving disturbing traces of an irresolvable conflict. The Lost Daughter isn’t about resolving conflict; it’s about learning to live with it — or not.
    We soon discover that Leda has taken what appears to be a working vacation. She’s gone to a small Italian beach town, ostensibly to concentrate on her work.
    Inevitably, she meets other tourists, as well as a handyman (Ed Harris) and the local bartender (Paul Mescal). 
    An uneasy relationship develops between Leda and Nina (Dakota Johnson), a wife and mother who has traveled to Italy with a small family group from Queens, New York. Nina begins to fixate on Leda as a possible role model.
    Leda shows the ferocity of her independence when, on the beach, she denies a request by Nina to move her beach chair so that her family can spread out a bit. Leda's refusal intrigues Nina, who’s having her own issues with the demands of motherhood.
     At one point, Nina’s young daughter is lost along with her favorite doll. Leda finds the girl, calming the girl’s frantic mother. Leda also finds the doll, which becomes the centerpiece of a revealing and provocative turn.
     Leda's most important relationship may be one she can’t dodge, the connection to her youthful self. Leda’s younger days are seen in flashbacks in which an impressive Jessie Buckley portrays Leda as a young mother who’s constantly being distracted by two demanding daughters. She can't get any work done at home.
   In these flashbacks, Gyllenhaal presents a small but telling portrait of a marriage under stress. Leda’s husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) tends to his own career and disappoints his wife in bed.
   At an academic conference, Leda begins an affair with a colleague (Peter Sarsgaard) who greatly admires her ability to translate poetry.
   Work, independence, and sex provide Leda with much-needed fulfillment— but also leave her grappling with guilt about maternal insufficiencies. She reveals herself when she tells Nina that children can be a “crushing responsibility.” Underline the word “crushing.”
    You can spend productive time unpacking the symbolic importance of dolls in the movie but, in broadest terms, they suggest a side of womanhood that Leda both needs and disdains.
    Presented in a plain, unadorned style in which the flashbacks sometimes feel abruptly inserted, The Lost Daughter stands as a courageously truthful depiction of a struggle many women face but which seldom receives on-screen. 
    The movie doesn't indulge in simple or even complicated solutions; it's a challenging look at what it means for Leda to face the consequences of choices that haunt her. 
     Only an actress of Colman's caliber could make this work.

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