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Guilt of Motherhood

Director Maggie Gyllenhaal's debut film 'The Lost Daughter' explores the gaping schism between filial love and self love. Olivia Colman, plays the role of Leda, who in trying to be an ideal mother, finds she is losing her identity. She leaves her girls to find herself but this abdication of motherhood shackles her with an unresolved sense of crushing guilt. Vrishti Dasgupta reviews this film which has been nominated for the Oscars in the Best Actress category (Olivia Colman), Best Supporting Actress category (Jessica Buckley) and Best Adapted Screenplay category (Maggie Gyllenhal). 

Motherhood and a satisfying career, filial love and self-love, are on opposing ends of the spectrum. And never the twain shall meet. This seems to be the thread running through the film, ‘The Lost Daughter’, an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Elena Ferrente. The feminists would probably decry such a clichéd subject and insist that a woman is capable of handling both roles with finesse. But if truth be told, juggling both roles is associated with a load of guilt and self-condemnation for a mother who feels that in pursuing her career she has abdicated her responsibility as a mother. It is this sense of crushing guilt, frustration, anger that is unravelled with great skill by debut Director Maggie Gyllenhaal and the protagonist Leda (played by Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley).

Leda, a professor of Comparative literature, arrives for a dream vacation to a tiny Greek island. The place seems to be like Paradise and Leda lounges on the beach, enjoying the sun and the water and working on Dante’s Paradiso. The calm is broken with the arrival of a noisy family from Queens. Unhappy with their intrusion and rambunctious ways, Leda’s attention is caught by a young Mother Nina and her demanding 3-year-old daughter Elena. And that’s when the emotional undercurrents surface. In the relationship between Nina and Elena, Leda is reminded of her younger days when she as a mother of two young girls, Bianca and Marta, had felt opposing tugs of filial love and frustration at missing out on opportunities in life. When Elena gets lost, Leda is reminded of the time when she had searched for Bianca with a similar sense of urgency and desperation. And despite the love for their daughters, both Nina and Leda feel that in being ideal mothers they were losing themselves bit by bit. Leda discloses to Nina that she had left her girls for three years. She calls them ‘amazing years’ but she returns because she ‘loves them and misses them.’ The name of the protagonist, Leda, from Yeats’ poem ‘Leda and the Swan’ suggests that her inner self has been plundered and irreparably damaged in trying to be a good mother, in trying to balance two such different roles. In Nina’s frustration, she sees her own younger self.  She steals Elena’s doll as it reminds her of her own doll, gifted to her by her Mum. She tries to quell her guilt and draw some sense of warmth and assurance from this inanimate object. But to no avail. The sea water that the doll glugs out and the worm that the doll spews become symbolic of the roiling toxic emotions inside Leda which make her unhappy and anxious.


This is not the story of an indifferent and unnatural mother, as a lot of reviews have dubbed the film. It is the story of all those women who have tried to be good mothers as well as excel in careers. They sometimes fail like Leda and carry the sense of toxic guilt that makes their life hell; for everything around them brings them face to face with this biggest failure in their life. The camera pans again and again on Leda’s face, a face sometimes awash with tears of regret at choices wrongly made, eyes glimmering with understanding at what Nina is going through, a face softened with tenderness when she looks at Elena or Nina and eyes alight with humour as she reminiscences about her girls and their teen problems with Will. She ironically accepts that what she finds most beautiful in them is what was most alien to her. A film that holds you spellbound and just a bit angry at being brought face-to-face with emotions that you don’t want to confront. A brutally honest film that lays bare ugly emotions most of us don’t want to be associated with, but which make us human. A film that every woman must watch as it shows bits and pieces of us, broken and fragmented, unable to traverse the gaping schism between filial love and self-love. ‘Does it ever change?’ says Nina, referring to the toxic duo, frustration and love. Leda’s eyes tell her it doesn’t. A film where ‘the unspoken says more than the spoken.’

~Vrishti Dasgupta