Maggie Gyllenhaal’s amazing feat in obtaining the rights to Elena Ferrante’s (2006) novel The Lost Daughter speaks volumes. The film screened at the 59th New York Film Festival to acclaim.
Interestingly, the anonymous best-selling author – Elena Ferrante in a pen name – felt compelled to give Gyllenhaal a hearing. Finally, she bestowed on her the rights and the creative freedom to adapt The Lost Daughter and make it her own. Ferrante’s publisher, who conducted the negotiations offered one quid pro quo. Gyllenhaal must write and direct it herself. Ferrante wanted a woman to adapt her work.
Gyllenhaal discussed this illuminating quid pro quo at a Q&A with most of the ensemble cast present at the film’s premiere at the NYFF. The film had already won for best screenplay at the 78th Venice Film Festival in September. For her directorial debut with The Lost Daughter, she speeds beyond the outfield and smashes it into the heavens.
Following Ferrante, the film strikes at the heart of femininity, motherhood, female autonomy and notions of gender equality. Also, it explores the desire for women to be all their nurturing bodies would have them be. And it focuses on the emotional strain upon a woman who wants to create a life independent from her children, husband, family.
The director reveals that the either-or choices (career vs. motherhood) deaden. Through the mesmerizing Olivia Colman’s brilliant characterization of Professor Leda, Gyllenhaal reveals that women have the capacity to achieve all their heart’s desires. But a price must be paid. The woman must shed internalized cultural folkways to rebirth a new creation and identity. Importantly, this creation remains unbound by the social structure. The process can be terrifying, if illuminating.
Gyllenhaal magnifies Leda’s tension and compulsion throughout her adaptation. Portrayed with stunning emotional grist, the divorced older Leda meditates, reflects, writes. In flashbacks the superb Jessie Buckley portrays the younger, searching woman who confronts the trials of marriage, motherhood, career.
The director reveals the pulling apart of the roles from the youthful Leda’s psyche as she throws off societal expectations. In her interior exploration, the older Leda confronts guilt and torment. Eventually, on her solitary summer vacation in Greece, the older Leda reconciles the past. Though her journey remains incomplete for now, the conclusion is hopeful.
With precision Gyllenhaal underscores Leda’s revelation and reconciliation to create wholeness in her life. Using expert cinematography (including blurs and close-ups, intercut with sharp edits) the director implants meaning with every shot. The camerawork intrigues as Leda’s mystery gradually clarifies. And yet gaps abide so we will never gain the full picture of why. This beautiful, haunting and emotionally profound film is further heightened by an incredibly powerful musical score.
All these elements meld together to convey a disturbing emotional experience as we relate to the professor. And we leave with uncertainty about her willful and dangerous exchanges with a family she meets on the Greek island. Gyllenhaal distills the intricate moments from the book to their essence. Though the setting, time and place differ, the characterization of Leda and her involvement with the family sparks truthful similitude with Ferrante’s work. The symbols (doll, orange, sea slug, little girls) add further richness to a complex film. The tremendous talents of the ensemble (Ed Harris, Dakota Johnson, Paul Mescal, Peter Sarsgaard, Dagmara Dominczyk) provide supporting fervor and allow the themes to crack open by the film’s conclusion.
Look for this wonderful film on Netflix, if you are unable to get tickets to screenings at the 59th NYFF. For tickets and times check the website under the Spotlight section.