The Lost Daughter’s Mirrored Characters Reflect the Trials of Motherhood

Leda and Nina couldn’t be more different, but they see themselves in each other

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directional debut The Lost Daughter (2021) is a brazen display of the emotional burden family can place on women. It reveals to us the life of Leda Caruso (Olivia Coleman) and the consequences of her youth that are laced intricately through her present. She carries a lot of guilt and seems unhappy with her choices, yet recognises them for what they were. This is a film about shared trauma between generations of mothers, with much of the narrative showing mirroring between the two main characters despite their very different lives.

It is through this mirroring that we see that the trials of motherhood transcend social status, financial stability, and culture. We are exposed to the harsh reality of women’s unpaid domestic labour and the expectations placed upon them to be primary caregivers to their children. The story is based upon a novel by the same name, penned originally in Italian by Elena Ferrante.

Gyllenhaal, who has two daughters herself, told Tatler that she related to Leda, despite reading the book and acknowledging that her actions were “f*cked up”. She speaks about her realisation that some of her feelings toward motherhood were actually a shared experience, and that reading The Lost Daughter left her feeling comforted and less alone.

Adapted by Gyllenhaal herself, the story remains largely authentic to its roots with only small changes to aid the flow of the narrative and present the characters as Gyllenhaal wanted them. The main distinction is the change of ethnicity in the lead character: originally written as Italian, Gyllenhaal’s Leda is from Leeds, and now lives in Queens, New York. She remains a dedicated professor, but now specialises in Italian translations.

It is Leda’s dark, unsettling reflections on motherhood and family which provide the basis of her story. It is only when she sees herself in young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) that she begins to forgive herself for not being able to have it all.

We join her as a middle-aged divorcee taking a holiday on a Greek island. Nina, who is in the area with her family—including her young daughter (Athena Martin Anderson)—catches Leda’s eye on the beach one day. As she observes Nina’s exhaustion and struggle to keep up with Elena’s energy, Leda is reminded of the struggles that faced her when her own daughters were young.

When we are introduced to Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Nina’s partner, Leda becomes uncomfortably aware of how little societal change has happened since her own youth. Like Leda’s husband Joe (Jack Farthing), Toni spends a lot of time away from his wife and daughter for work.

We learn more about Leda’s experiences through a series of flashbacks. It is revealed that Leda has two daughters whom she struggled to care for when they were small. As she says to Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk) at one point, “children are a crushing responsibility”. In Leda’s memories the girls are seen playing and shrieking—enjoying their childhood and wanting to spend time with their mother, who is clearly exhausted.

In one particular memory, Leda recalls how Bianca (Robyn Elwell) drew all over a doll that Leda had owned since her own childhood. Whilst it is easy to see that Bianca did not understand the sentimental value of the doll and believed it to be hers, it is just as easy to feel how much pain it would cause to have something so precious vandalised in such a way.

Leda’s aggression in this scene is not an expression of violent desires, but has a negative impact on her daughters emotionally all the same. Her irritability is understandable as a product of her circumstances, but her behaviour is unhealthy and damaging.

Leda so desperately wanted to trust Bianca, but Bianca was not old enough for this responsibility. She sees this as Bianca destroying something of hers, and Bianca sees this as her mother destroying her new doll. Leda likely regrets how angry she became, and, as an adult, Bianca would likely understand why her mother was upset.

It is a scene in which both people get hurt, and there are no sides—just the pain of motherhood when it goes wrong. Young Leda (Jessie Buckley) throws the doll out of the bathroom window and it shatters as it hits the ground.

While her two daughters were young, Leda was also under pressure from her full-time professorship. She struggled to find time for herself and her husband was often away. He is never seen actively taking care of the young girls – in fact, when Leda returns from a rare trip, the first question Martha (Ellie Blake) asks her is if she can wash her hair.

However, we are also shown scenes of the three laughing together, the girls dressing up, giggling, dancing for their mother while she looks full of joy. We are presented with the highs as well as the lows; we are exposed to the overwhelming plethora of emotions that Leda would have felt during this time of her life.

Despite holding so many frustrations, it is clear that these emotions lie in the burden of her unbridled responsibility and not with her daughters, whom she loves very much. Leda has been trapped in a situation where it is required and expected of her to provide for her entire family as well as herself, with very little practical assistance from her partner. She feels for a long time that she has no choice but to accept these heavy responsibilities, despite clear prior agreement with Joe about sharing the childcare responsibilities. Joe expects Leda to be able to care for the children solely whenever he needs time for work. In one scene one of the children is crying. It is Joe’s day to look after them, but he is on the phone and is gesturing to Leda that she must go and care for them. She tells him that she is suffocating and he dismisses her.

It was only when Leda and Joe met a very different couple that Leda begins to imagine her life another way, away from these frustrations. Joe lets in a couple of hikers (Alba Rohrwacher and Nikos Poursanidis) who have been caught in bad weather and they stay for a few hours. The hikers reveal that the man previously had a wife and children, but left them for the freer life he now has with his new partner. The couple meet Bianca and Martha, then the four adults make friends and share a lovely evening.

Although the key character mirroring in this story occurs between Leda and Nina, Leda also sees herself in the male hiker. She has ambitions that fit a traditionally masculine framework and this is the first time that she seems to realise that it is her femininity that traps her. When the couple leave, the female hiker expresses appreciation of Leda’s work, planting the seed that eventually leads to her leaving: Leda has tasted intellectual acknowledgement and now desires this even more in her professional life.

When her daughters are five and seven, Leda gets the opportunity to speak at a conference in London, which she accepts readily. She decides to hire a babysitter and makes the leap into prioritising her career. Before she leaves she gives extensive instructions to the babysitter, ensuring she has all the information she needs to keep the girls happy and healthy. She also promises to call every night, which she does. Leda’s need to do something for herself does not diminish the love she has for Martha and Bianca.

Once she has arrived at the event, Leda realises that she is much happier away from the pressures of her family life, and ultimately decides to leave them. This trip sparks a sense of freedom in her as she realises in real terms what she has been missing out on. Finally appreciated for her academic talents and her individual achievements, this seems like the first time in her life that Leda has felt seen.

It is at this conference that Leda meets Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard). She moves to sit beside him as the academics dine and the two quickly strike up conversation. He recites poetry to her in Italian and the two begin an short-term affair.

These erotic scenes marking the beginning of the affair are beautifully written and directed; the fingerprints of female sexuality are all over them. There is no overt sexual imagery, instead a focus on sensations and frustrations and the emotions of the characters involved.

Professor Hardy waits for Leda to touch him first. He allows her to slide her palm inside his shirt and he waits with an open and raised hand, making sure she is sure before he reciprocates. He makes no attempt to grab at her, he simply responds to her desire with his own.

In the scene that follows, the two academics are seen lying together on a staircase, kissing. They lie on their sides and there is no power dynamic in their body language; they are equals. Their passion and excitement for one another is displayed by their inability to reach a room before lying down together and not through any overtly sexual imagery or roughness.

Like the female hiker, Professor Hardy is engaged with Leda intellectually. This recognition is what Leda has been craving her whole life and it is this intellectual connection that drives the passion and the sexiness of the affair. As Gyllenhaal stated in an interview, “if someone really gets how your brain works, right down to the molecule, there’s nothing sexier than that”.

After spending some time away, Leda makes the decision to leave her family behind, much to the dismay of her husband – who is clearly more upset about the loss of childcare than the loss of love. The affair dwindles soon after, with Leda remaining apart from her family. She starts a new, independent life before returning to her family when she misses her daughters, three years later.

It is not hidden from us—indeed, Leda is acutely aware of it herself—that this action was very selfish. But there is no judgement here either, this is just the story of Leda’s life. Unlike the male hiker, Leda leaves for her own freedom and not because she is seeking another relationship.

An interesting question is raised by her three-year absence. What she did was objectively very selfish, but it was only after deeper reflection that I realised that Joe had already been absent for the majority of the children’s lives until that point. He was afforded leniency because, despite dipping in and out when it suited him, his absence was socially acceptable and unofficial. Leda choosing to leave cleanly was incredibly bold, if just as self-serving, but undoubtedly more subject to scrutiny despite being damaging in a very similar way.

Leda was not necessarily at fault for craving more from her life, but the ultimate victims of her choice were her daughters. Great pain was offloaded on to all three women because the family structure was not stable enough with just one parent supporting it. Much like the situation with the doll, there are no winners here.

We are not told much about Leda’s relationship with her now adult daughters, other than that they are in touch with one another and seem to be on reasonably good terms. Now both in their early to mid-twenties, Bianca and Martha live independently. Leda is rueful about pieces of their childhood, but never expresses explicit regret. She seems aware that, while her actions may have caused damage to her daughters, she did what was right for her and ultimately reconciled with them. She recognises her own faults, but is accepting of the events as they were.

The mirroring we see between Leda and Nina is exceptionally well-crafted. They are distinct enough characters that we avoid cliché and the point is made that, regardless of background, there are battles that women who are mothers share with one another despite their circumstances—the biggest of which often their loss of individual freedoms.

It is precisely because Leda and Nina have such obvious differences that this point is made so beautifully. When Elena is jumping around and wearing Nina out, Nina is feeling the exact feelings that Leda had when her own children would jump around on her, and that’s all that matters.

Leda was not evil to want an escape and her academic goals were not to blame. It is likely that, as a self-described “unnatural mother”, she would have faced these challenges anyway without the support of her partner, a nanny, or more familial support. Raising children cannot always be a one-person job, and it is unfair to assume that women are always capable of picking up all of the slack by themselves. Leda may have thrived as a mother under different and more supportive circumstances, as would Nina.

As far as we know, Nina is not being held back from goals and aspirations, yet she still finds motherhood relentless in the moments when she is overwhelmed. There is no attempt to justify her reasons for rejecting aspects of motherhood; there is also no attempt to invalidate Nina because her conflicts are not commended or based in masculine pursuits. We see plainly that these tribulations and frustrations exist regardless, and neither woman is condoned or condemned for facing them in their own way.

Leda’s children both being daughters is significant for a few reasons. Knowing Leda would hope for a better life for her daughters than the one she lived herself adds an extra dimension to her pain. As she helps Nina by advising her gently, she is trying to break the cycle of motherhood guilt. She speaks to Nina as if she were speaking to her younger self or one of her daughters. Finally seeing her own situation from a third person perspective helps her to appreciate her circumstances for what they were. The ability to empathise with others and how easy it is to see our humanity when it is reflected in others are what helps Leda to find acceptance.

The title of this film is ambiguous in many ways, but my personal feeling is that any one of the female characters could be the ‘lost daughter’. Very little about Leda’s own childhood is revealed to us. When she is telling Joe that she is leaving that the idea of her daughters being raised in England by her mother is horrifying to her, for reasons that are not explained. Her adult life seems fraught with the feeling that she is drifting, unable to truly belong anywhere and not having a close-knit bond with her immediate family. We do know that she and her husband remained separated, and it is heavily implied that she remained single for the majority of their lives apart.

Elena, Nina’s daughter, shares a Christian name with the original author of this story. It is possible that, in some ways, the author was writing about herself. Elena is the youngest character, a girl who does not yet know anything about adult life or what her responsibilities as a woman may become. Perhaps Ferrante was wistfully imagining that she could turn back time and re-write her own childhood as one where the adults around her were able to recognise and break the cycles that were holding them back, and infuse those new lessons into her upbringing.

We also see a valuable comment on privacy and the intrusive questions that pregnant mothers are often asked. When Leda talks to Callie about her pregnancy she repeatedly asks if it is her first, implying that Callie is lying when she says that it is. Regardless of whether Callie is lying or not, Leda does not have the right to publicly extract information about her personal life. Callie’s defensive response in this scene is the only time we see her visibly uncomfortable.

As Leda’s holiday is drawing to a close she discovers that Nina is having an affair with Will (Paul Mescal), a man in his early 20s who is working at the resort over the summer.

Nina sends Will to ask Leda if they can use her holiday apartment to spend some secret time together. Leda tells Will that she wants Nina to ask for herself, but she seems to be okay with the idea. Like Leda’s decision to leave her family, Nina’s affair is presented to us without judgement. This is a story about coping, not a trial; the moral arguments are not supposed to have answers.

The real conversation here is the feelings this film is able to provoke. The characters are deliberately, realistically, and obtusely complex in a way that forces us to examine what we think is right, and whether our judgement even matters. The facts and sacrifices of life as a woman and as a mother are laid out before us to do with what we will.

When Nina visits to collect the keys to the apartment she seems on edge, juxtaposing “I am happy” with saying she has “depression or something.” She looks desperate and asks Leda if her own depression ever went away, to which she is informed that is never did. Leda chooses this time to reveal that she stole Elena’s doll a few days ago when they were on the beach. Nina is very angry about this as her family had spent days searching for the doll, which is very important to Elena. Nina stabs Leda in the abdomen with the hatpin that Leda bought with her at the market a few days before, and storms out.

One question that people seem to be asking, is ‘why did Leda take the doll?” Personally, I enjoy that there is no answer to this question. We all do things without knowing our motivations sometimes, and, in all likelihood, Leda wanted the doll for reasons that she did not altogether understand herself. This, like many other things—her awkward flirtation with Lyle (Ed Harris), her extreme and borderline irrational distress in the movie theatre—is a reflection of her humanity. Leda is experiencing emotions that she cannot label, as we all do from time to time.

The ending of the film is stylistically very nice. Leda, after being impaled by Nina’s hat pin, crashes her car and stumbles down to the beach where she falls asleep with the tide lapping at her white sundress. The next morning she wakes and speaks to her daughters on the phone, who happen to be together. She smiles as they speak, and peels an orange all in one piece, the way she used to for her daughters when they were young (“like a snake”). As she chats to her daughters on the phone, we begin to see that something is… off. The two daughters are together, despite living apart, Leda has magically conjured a perfect orange, and she insists, “I am alive”.

In the novel this scene is less ambiguous, with Leda telling her children, “I’m dead but I’m fine”. I prefer Gyllenhaal’s version—blissful, Leda is at peace. She reassures them that she is not dead, but I think she is.

In the novel, Leda wakes in hospital after crashing her car. I greatly enjoyed the changes made to this scene. The peaceful beach represents to me what we are told heaven looks like. If you do indeed believe that Leda has died, this could be interpreted as a sign that her actions have been forgiven, or that she has found salvation despite them.

Getting to know Leda both through her own actions and what we can infer about her from her interactions with Nina is a journey. The way the characters are similar enough that Leda finds herself shocked by how much she sees herself in Nina, but are different enough that valuable points are made about how much of motherhood is shared experience, is a perfect example of how using mirrored characters can work. They share the same experiences echoed over a generation, whilst remaining entirely separate.

The Lost Daughter offers a gentle reflection on the damage done to women by societies placing expectations of unilateral childcare and domestic labour on them, and the consequences of this for not only for these women but also the children who may be emotionally neglected because they are cared for by an over-stretched parent not prepared for this family structure. The fact that this is so frequent in two-parent households is truly devastating. This film not only examined familial relationships but also the relationships we have with other people, including the ones we barely know.

Written by Anna Green

Politics graduate based in the UK. I'm passionate about writing so I can usually be found buried in ink and paper. Proud writer for 25YL!

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