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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut, 'The Lost Daughter'

January 10, 2022
3 min read time

Photograph: Netflix

The Lost Daughter, the first in what is likely to become a larger Maggie Gyllenhaal directing canon, delves into things women don’t normally talk about. Motherhood is not always all it’s cracked up to be, and in pre-Instagram days, it was likely even harder to find someone to speak to about the woes of raising a kid — that even when you have a partner, still falls primarily on a woman’s shoulders.

The Lost Daughter goes there, and much deeper in a mash-up of character drama, suspense and a touch of horror. Gyllenhaal's first effort benefits the most from the masterwork that is Olivia Colman, but it also offers some wonderful style along with it. 

1. The power of memory.  Leda (Olivia Colman) has a lot of secrets. Gyllenhaal chooses to let us into her inner world slowly throughout the film through Jessie Buckley, who takes on the role of Young Leda in flashbacks that always feel captivating in lieu of being heavy-handed or taking away from the story. Perhaps because these are the deepest insights into why Leda is the way she is. It’s certain she’s hiding something, but always uncertain what exactly that is, or how bad it might be. It’s clear her marriage is strained and that having two young girls was maybe more than she bargained for, but the "what if" that haunts her haunts every mother. What if the action she took is every woman’s fantasy now and again? Either way, Gyllenhaal does an excellent job keeping up the suspense surrounding Leda’s past transgressions. 

2. The loveliness of restraint.  Gyllenhaal and Colman are masters of restraint here. The audience is teased that something terrible is coming, but along the way, it’s often glances on the beach or the attempts at repairing a doll that’s seen better days that say both a little and a whole hell of a lot. In the hands of a less capable actor, the film may have felt too slow and a look may have said less, but watching Colman at the height of her game, and a director who has a beyond capable vision, is both a joy and masterclass in suspense writing.

3. Selfish Leda.  Leda labels herself as selfish as she converses with Nina (Dakota Johnson), who has her own struggles with a daughter on the constant verge of her own breakdown. The daughter is literally attached to Nina in every scene they appear together, almost sucking the lifeblood from her lips in some scenes. But this movie asks what few films do: Is it selfish to want separation from your kids? Is it too much to ask to not want the identity of a mother? Does taking time away from your children make you a bad mother to begin with? At one point, Nina dotes on Leda and tells her: “I want to be like you,” even though Nina knows very little of Leda’s life. She admires her independence instantly, and the film seems to constantly beg the question, can a woman live a life independently without some sort of eventual punishment?  

4. Setting as intoxication.  The film is set on the coast of Greece where the water is so blue it doesn’t seem real, and the booze and meals are cheap and plentiful — and Gyllenhaal embraces the setting with her dreamy tone. Leda is on vacation, after all. But when Leda drinks too much or faces a reality she does not want to face, the lens often goes soft and the audience feels what Leda feels: The possibility of fainting because it’s all just too much. In Gyllenhaal's Greece, sometimes the refuge and peace of the setting make the reality its visitors are trying to escape from a little too much, as well. 

5. Powerful supporting characters.  Even though the film begs difficult questions about how society views women in general and what women can pursue or not pursue in their own lives without retribution, the women in this movie are powerful. They know what they want and they almost never hesitate to indulge it. They do not want the identity of motherhood to let those around them forget that they are still women with fierce sexuality, desire and lives of their own no matter what state of motherhood is currently defining them, and despite the fact that they are usually judging each other nonetheless. 

Final Takeaway: Maggie Gyllenhaal has created a specific world in which a glance and a gesture mean so much, perhaps because her protagonist remains an unreliable one throughout — a woman punishing herself for her past, trapped in her own interpretation of her memories. One hopes Leda’s fate is not what’s coming for Nina, but also, one can never be sure, and that seems to be the point.


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