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The Lost Daughter: The Feminist Mystique Deconstructed

In her directorial debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter has garnered three Oscar nominations while telling an intriguing, yet slow burning psychological drama based on the novel of the same name. Surprisingly, this movie plays well into discussions regarding feminism and offers a subtle, possibly unintended critique of the societally corrosive ideology at its core. One might say the film is a deconstruction of the feminist mystique. This movie is available on Netflix so if you are adverse to spoilers, this is your warning.


The film follows Leda Caruso (Olivia Coleman), a 48 year old college professor and mother who spends her summer holiday in Greece. She is alone and estranged from her daughters. After initial confrontation with a wealthy Greco-American family from Queens while on the beach, she takes interest in a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter. While on the beach, Nina’s daughter goes missing to which Leda successfully finds her on behalf of the family. Secretly, Leda takes the daughter’s doll, keeping it despite the daughter’s outcry over is prolonged absence. To Leda, the doll resembles that which she had as a girl growing up and that which she attempted to share with her own daughters. Leda proceeds to care for the doll, attempting to clean it from the elements until the very end of the movie.

Along the way, viewers learn of Leda’s story as they see flashbacks of her in her younger years, portrayed by Jessie Buckley. The younger Leda struggles between her academic pursuits in comparative literature and mothering her two daughters. Leda begrudgingly cares for her daughters, though as the movie goes on she increasingly prefers the high minded academic circles. This increasingly deteriorates her marriage as she proceeds to have an affair with Professor Hardy while away at a conference and eventually abandons her daughters for three years.

Leda sees herself in Nina, who is also disaffected in her marriage while she endures the challenges as a young mother. Nina’s husband Tony visits the island on weekends in between work. Throughout the film, Nina and Tony have fits of fighting to affectionate moments. The two women, plus her aunt Callie, bump into Leda at a toy store, where Leda is purchasing an outfit for the doll. Leda proceeds to nearly faint when asked about her own experienced as a mother. Eventually, Nina confides in her dissatisfaction with her husband who she contends also adores her. Leda catches Nina fooling around with Will, a college student and beach attendant, to which Nina confronts her later on. Leda confides that abandoning her daughters was amazing and that the depression Nina is feeling will not go away. Eventually Nina seeks to use her apartment for her fling with Will.

I will not spoil the ending to the movie. Other side plots contained include Lyle (Ed Harris), Leda’s landlord, who functions as an older, male foil to Leda. Lyle is similarly estranged from his family and admittedly mean. While their interactions are awkward in the beginning, the two eventually come to an understanding of one another. Another side character is Callie, Nina’s sister in law, who is pregnant with her first at the age of 42. She frequently carries the burdens of Nina when she is too exhausted to mother.

Film Review

The Lost Daughter is a well-made, competently directed feature film that is quite worthy of its Oscar nominations. From a directorial standpoint, the use of up-close camera angles applies an intimacy while the occasional blurred shots and interwoven flashback sequences enhance the story being told and the mental state of Leda. One might find the film boring if they seek action sequences, but for those that enjoy slower pace, tension building stories where one can observe characters unravel and explore the depths of their mind, the film is quite thought provoking. The acting is likewise excellently done. Coleman and Johnson do brilliant performances in conveying the protagonist, adding to the emotional depth Leda feels in both timelines. Even side characters like veteran Ed Harris add value to the film through his screen presence. The use of parallel characters, who serve as foils for one another, allows any viewer to adequately glean meaning from the film, as the movie is not pretentious in its execution.


Leda’s character represents the feminist mystique in the decisions she has made throughout her life. She pursues academic status over family, and even when she is shown mothering her daughters, it is often reluctantly so. She is capable of being a good mother, even teaching them certain Italian phrases and the way she interacts with her daughters cutting orange peels, which is a recurring image throughout the film. Often, in her disinclination, she functions as a refrigerator mother, as her children are interrupting her educational pursuits, her sexual desires, and messing up her home. At times this leads to rather abusive moments. However, it is her apathy as a mother early in her life which leads to her present loneliness throughout the film. She is vacationing in Greece alone. She is presumably divorced and somewhat content her misery. She steals a doll as a coping mechanism, since it resembled that which her mother gave to her and that which her daughter broke. The doll becomes a symbolic crutch to her mental psyche. By withholding it, she is encouraging Nina’s misery, by way of her daughter. By taking a predatory interest in Nina, Leda projects herself onto a younger woman whom Leda encourages to be an adulterous wife and pursue self-interest like she did at her age.

The movie also denotes the challenges of motherhood versus a career path. For Leda, motherhood is burdensome, more so than her job. Presumably, when she states that she is from Cambridge, near Boston, she is hinting that she is a professor at Harvard. In her pretentious niche of a field, she has garnered prestige and respect within academic circles, and she enjoys sharing her wealth of literary knowledge. While her Ivy league career prospers, motherhood is portrayed as burdensome and traumatic, with small children clamoring repetitiously to their mothers, disallowing them rest. For Leda, she chose the feminist pathway, ditched motherhood, and pursued a career only to be miserable in a paradise encouraging another to follow in her path. In the end, a takeaway from this movie is that while motherhood is difficult, it is the more rewarding of the paths.

On marriage, the movie seems to critique young marriages as disruption to self-elevation, even conveying that the female pair are shackled to their familial duties. Feminism invokes a critical lens into the family unit, whereby roles are the result of an unequal power dynamic between men and women. Though none of the husbands are truly portrayed in a negative light by the film, this ironically serves to emphasize the selfishness of women like Leda. Professor Hardy fornicates with her knowing full well that she is married. Professor Hardy is contrasted with Will, who does the same with Nina. Though Leda encourages promiscuity, she is otherwise miserable and lonely after having made these decisions.

Overall, Leda is the embodiment of the Feminist Mystique, and she is miserable throughout the movie, roping other characters to interact with her to satisfy the loneliness she has cultivated for herself. One simply cannot abandon their children for three years or destroy their marriage and expect there to be no repercussions later in life. She lived for the present moment in her youth and reaped what she had sown. What might be unintended by Hollywood is that they created a movie where the woman pursued feminism and academia to satisfy herself only to end up miserable as a result. Whereas feminism seeks to empower women in all facets and elevate themselves, often at the expense of motherhood, the role of motherhood appears to triumph by the ending of the film.

As liberal and Marxist as Hollywood is, they often cannot escape the inexplicable truths of our created world, and this is especially evident when they create true art—that is good content. This is because art imitates life and vis versa. When they reject this mantra in favor of wokeness, which is unnatural, their product suffers. Although interesting, Leda does not come across as likable and viewers might not identify with her struggles due to her selfishness. In no way is she an ideal protagonist one would desire to emulate, yet she is the female eunuch. A movie like The Lost Daughter is not a gospel message, nor can one naturally fit into this story. At the same time, it is an exploration of ideas, mainly feminism and its fruit. It should serve as a reminder to the importance of mothers in our communities, that motherhood is the most challenging, yet most rewarding path a woman can choose.

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