Motherhood is depicted in a nuanced way which neither sugarcoats nor vilifies in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. It strikes a chord with those questioning their new state of motherhood, and who recognise the symptoms of postnatal depression all too well – Hannah Gatward walks us through it.
Children are, says Leda Caruso, a “crushing responsibility”. The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaall’s directorial debut, an elegant adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel about motherhood and memory, was for me, a difficult watch; stopping and starting and breathing through the panic that those heavy words, crushing responsibility, brought. I am only able to write this now, from a distance of a few months of contentment – enjoyment even – at my own state of motherhood.
For so long, I doubted not only my ability to cope but my ability to believe in the choices I had made. Through the torturous wilderness of the first year of sleep-deprived parenting, there was, and still is now, a lack of kinship when it comes to discussing the stigmatised topics of postnatal depression and the anxiety, loneliness, regret and endless guilt that falls on so many new mothers, especially during a global pandemic that meant an even deeper, inescapable isolation. In the dark depths of lockdown winter park walks with other mums, all I wanted to hear were the words, “Yes, I sometimes think this isn't worth it too”. But I was met with silence, disagreement or awkward smiles. And when admitting that I was really not enjoying this, I had admitted the inadmissible. Not for them, they say. They love every minute. Well. Good for you. Good. For. You.
To have a child who was planned, is wanted, healthy, happy and entirely loved. There is still a form of resentment – not on the child, the innocent sweetie – but on that responsibility. It is crushing. There is such a physical and mental demand on every aspect of your being that it seems hard, impossible even, to see how anyone could ever choose this. But mothers should cherish these precious moments, so we are told.
In The Lost Daughter, Olivia Colman’s portrayal of Leda – a woman with hard cold edges and a stubborn vindictiveness, an often withholding and distant mother – is nevertheless drenched in empathy. There is an emotional understanding in Gyllenhaal’s direction and adaptation, otherwise sorely lacking in Western society’s discussion of motherhood. When Leda first sees struggling young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her little girl Elena on the beach during her working holiday on a Greek island, the tension on her face softens. A half smile, a remembrance, a longing, soon followed by an overwhelming sadness. There, in a few seconds, the whole emotional breadth of the film is played out; a gentle glow of parental nostalgia wrangling with anguished dread.
As the daily observations of Nina’s exhaustion frequently transport Leda to her early parenting days, the film is punctuated with flashbacks to her younger self (played by Jessie Buckley). It is an achingly complex, careful portrait of childcare; both emotionally tender and persistently excruciating. Fiercely ambitious, driven by her burgeoning academic career, Leda is pulled in every direction by her two little daughters and rather drippy husband, Joe, as the building pressures of everyday home life start to grate. Close-ups are held against the faces of Leda and her girls with an intensity as intimate and intrusive as the relentless, unwavering love that comes from a child. It is disturbing to see her so detached from her children, ignoring one as she asks Leda to kiss a poorly finger, struggling to find the time to breathe through the frustrations, her daughters left wailing for the affection she’s unable to give. But these flashback scenes are also careful to show the cracks of light through murky clouds, and there is a warm authenticity to the cries of laughter, play and rolling-on-the-floor-hugs — undoubtable, unquestioning love.
Leda’s honest acknowledgement that she wanted to escape is refreshing, if somewhat jarring. But there is a delicate nuance in the depiction of a woman who chooses something else, if just for a while. She’s not succumbing to the myth of “having it all”, she’s making a hard choice. There’s no regret when she recalls leaving her children for three years, but she is perhaps ashamed. She loves them, she missed them, but to her it was inevitable. “It felt like I’d been trying not to explode and then I exploded,” she says.
In one scene, young Leda voices her doubts to her husband: “Sometimes I get scared I can’t take care of them”. Having felt the same fear myself, every day for months, I assume this is what most mothers or parents must feel but wonder where the voices are that say it’s okay if you can’t sometimes. He attempts to reassure her. “Of course you can,” he says, but that is not what she – or we, as mothers drowning in self doubt, always want to hear. Sometimes you can’t. You can’t cope and you’re not expected to, and that’s fine. Later, In a moment of post-coital candour, Leda admits with an almost sultry defiance to her lover, “I hate talking to my kids on the phone.” Of course, he tells her not “to say that”. But she wants to say it. She wants to voice, without fear, every negative feeling bubbling to the surface. Perhaps if she had been granted the ability to express her doubts and difficulties, she wouldn’t have exploded. Perhaps mothers and parents shouldn’t consistently be told these moments are all so precious and miraculous. Perhaps parents should be granted the space to say, “This is pretty shit.” To acknowledge the pure existential torment of change that comes with parenthood.
Leda’s holiday is punctuated with elements of the foul and repulsive – rotten fruit in her apartment, dead cicadas on her pillow, heavy falling pine cones bruising her back as she makes her way up from the beach. It’s a film which gently churns the stomach with a sense of foreboding. Is Leda being punished by nature for being “an unnatural mother”? The doll she strangely steals from little Elena is crawling with worms and leaks disgusting fluids as she tries to clean it – perhaps trying to restore her own wriggly memories of motherhood. Yet amongst all the decay and dread, The Lost Daughter doesn’t judge Leda, for there is a motherly gaze that views her through a lens of compassion. It’s an open-hearted, tumultuous portrait of a woman trapped — by expectation, patriarchal norms, but also by personal instinct. In the end, it is painful to watch her leave them, closing the door behind her without so much as a kiss goodbye. For me, PND in a lonely pandemic meant some of what should have been – so I was told – the happiest times were spent in despair, a silent shock. A permanent state of what Nina calls “scary tired”. Doubting every decision, from choosing to have a child in the first place, to how to feed him, how to parent, how to think.
Leda tells Nina, with a note of something lingering between malice and sympathy, “It doesn’t pass, none of this passes.” Yet, by the time the film ends, she has collapsed on the beach after a final, violent confrontation with Nina and woken in the morning to waves lapping at her feet. She closes her eyes with pleasure, peeling the orange that brings back memories of bonding with her girls, at that moment choosing to remember those pockets of joy. At the edge of the shore as she speaks to her children on the phone, now all grown up: “I’m alive, actually.” Maybe that’s enough.