The Lost Daughter
Olivia Colman delivers another Oscar-worthy performance in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film exploring the complexities of maternal ambivalence and guilt
Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal Broadcaster Netflix
We all know bad acting when we see it. The stiffness, the awareness of the audience, the evident anticipation of the next line or movement. A good actor on the other hand makes us barely aware of their craft, so convincingly can they persuade us that every word and action is spontaneous and integral to the character.
The mark of a truly great actor, therefore, is the ability to convincingly portray self-consciousness. The viewer watches the stiff awkwardness and mirthless laughs and feels drawn into greater sympathy with the character, rather than alienated by artificiality.
Olivia Colman is a truly great actor and proves it with her performance in The Lost Daughter. Right from the opening scene, in which the viewer is encouraged to believe that we’re about to enjoy a posh version of Shirley Valentine, complete with wafty linen, leather satchels and Italian literature, we’re somehow aware – just from the merest bend of the hand,
and twitch of the mouth – that when Leda Caruso is revelling in the sunshine of her Greek island holiday, she’s doing it more because she thinks she ought, than because she really feels it.
Leda is a woman struggling to find her authentic self, a mother of two daughters who found her greatest fulfilment when she left her children to pursue an academic career (and a hot lover) but can’t reconcile herself to the guilt. When we finally catch her in an unguarded moment, after a few drinks and with an attentive audience, all she wants to talk about is her complex relationship with her daughters, as she pours out the unfiltered product of 15 years of over-thinking.
When her Greek island idyll is invaded by a brash extended American family, Leda withdraws to the shadows to observe them haughtily from her sun lounger. As she watches them, she realises she’s witnessing the maternal ambivalence she experienced being repeated by another young mother.
Her cool detachment fights with her overwhelming urge to reach out to the woman she identifies with.
Leda’s disordered thinking about motherhood manifests itself in her stealing of a child’s doll, which she first cherishes, then hides, all while watching the family’s distress as they are unable to find it.
Colman is excellent at portraying the competing sides to Leda’s personality and takes the viewer with her as her maternal guilt seeps ever more persistently through the cracks of the professional academic surface. Elena Ferrante’s novels are notable for their portrayal of the deep complexity of women’s interior lives and relationships with each other, and there can be few actors who have the ability to covey the full range of that complexity than Olivia Colman. It would be a fitting tribute to her talent if she were to win a second Oscar for a role so different from The Favourite for which she won her first.
“The mark of a truly great actor, therefore, is the ability to convincingly portray selfconsciousness”