The past and present collide in 'The Lost Daughter' : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the Netflix film The Lost Daughter, Olivia Coleman plays Leda, a professor on a working holiday in Greece who becomes fascinated by a young mother played by Dakota Johnson. This leads Leda to think about her own past, and to flashbacks in which the young Leda is played by Jessie Buckley. Adapted from the 2006 Elena Ferrante novel of the same name, The Lost Daughter marks the directorial debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal. The film also stars Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris, and Paul Mescal.

The past and present collide in 'The Lost Daughter'

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

The film "The Lost Daughter" brings together two very busy and celebrated actors, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Olivia Colman. Colman plays the central character, a woman vacationing in Greece. Gyllenhaal, however, isn't on screen. She's in the director's chair, making her feature debut with a story that's sad and mysterious, quiet and contemplative about the nature of motherhood. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about "The Lost Daughter" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

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HOLMES: Joining me today is NPR culture desk correspondent Neda Ulaby. Welcome back, Neda.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Thank you, Linda.

HOLMES: So Maggie Gyllenhaal directs here from a script that adapts an Elena Ferrante novel. In the story, Leda, played by Olivia Colman, is a professor on a working holiday in Greece when she becomes kind of fascinated by a family or a group that she keeps seeing, particularly this young mother named Nina, played by Dakota Johnson. And this leads Leda to think about her own past. You also see flashbacks in which the young Leda is played by Jessie Buckley. Sometimes Leda's preoccupation with Nina seems sad. Sometimes it's very ominous. The rest of the cast includes Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris and Paul Mescal, who you might know from last year's Hulu adaptation of the Sally Rooney book "Normal People," so he's getting around all the high-end literary adaptations. This film is now streaming on Netflix.

Neda, you really liked this one. What'd you like about it?

ULABY: Linda, I didn't like it. I loved it. And it's partly 'cause I didn't think I would. And I'm almost a little worried about overhyping it because I want people to come into it with the same sense that I did, which was that I didn't think I was going to like it. I love Maggie Gyllenhaal as an actor. I love her roving intellectual ambitions as an artist. But I really settled down to "The Lost Daughter" worried that I was going to be having to sit through some sort of tedious, pretentious vanity project. And I was rapt.

HOLMES: That's very interesting to me because, I will disclose, you and I are both not moms.

ULABY: Right.

HOLMES: And this is very much a study of moms. And it's interesting to me that this story of motherhood grabbed you so much. What do you think grabbed you so much about it?

ULABY: It was possibly one of the least romantic portrayals of motherhood I've ever seen, shy of perhaps "The Babadook."

HOLMES: Yes.

ULABY: It was harrowing. It was unflinching. It was also a relief to see motherhood portrayed in such a way that I think is going to make a hell of a lot of sense to any parent who has been trapped with their child...

HOLMES: Yeah.

ULABY: ...In a house for the past two years. This all makes it sound difficult to watch. I experienced it as a pleasure. I really did. And it's partly because some of the greatest movies about motherhood are also about art, I think. Like, I think about, like, "All About My Mother" by Pedro Almodovar, "The Babadook," which is also about a parent's relationship with a child and the horrors of it extrapolated through art. And it is also a movie that's about telling stories, so it's about translating. And it's also a movie about not having children.

HOLMES: Yeah.

ULABY: And it's also a moment of looking back and reflecting upon one's decision to have children or to not and how that ended up happening.

HOLMES: Yeah.

ULABY: So I deeply related to it.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, you have also compared this to a horror movie. And you're, like, more of a horror movie person than I am. I definitely received it as, like, suspenseful and creepy. But I don't know if I would've thought of it as outright horror, but you really did.

ULABY: I did. It follows the beats of a horror movie. And there's so much that is almost knowingly horrific about it, right down to this creepy little doll that haunts the movie and...

HOLMES: Yeah, it does have a creepy doll.

ULABY: Let's actually - can we play a scene from the movie? And what's happening here is that Olivia Colman's character, Leda, is on the beach with the Dakota Johnson character and her little girl. And the little girl is a terror. She won't stop crying, and that's super annoying to Olivia Colman's character, who's an academic and really just wants to hang out on the beach and relax. But she's also a mom herself, and she's not unsympathetic when Johnson approaches her to apologize for her wailing child.

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OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Leda) So she's not calming down?

DAKOTA JOHNSON: (As Nina) Yeah.

ATHENA MARTIN: (As Elena, crying) Mommy.

JOHNSON: (As Nina) It's been a weird day. We found her, and then she lost her doll.

ATHENA: (As Elena, crying).

COLMAN: (As Leda) You'll find it.

HOLMES: It's interesting. Can I just say we talked recently about the film "Shiva Baby," which we were talking about the fact that in the background, there's this shiva, and there's a constantly crying baby in the background. And we talked about how it raises the, like, tension level of the scenes in the film. And, like, as I listened to that clip, the fact that you get that crying in the background is totally a part of, like, the atmospheric sense of that scene.

ULABY: One hundred percent. And there's also the sense of foreboding. You know, will they find the doll? Will they not find the doll? And there's something deeper and darker that's happening. There's this real undercurrent that Gyllenhaal just milks. And it reminds me a little bit - the way the horror unfolds - and to be clear, this is not a horror movie. It's a very specific exploration of women. It's a women's horror movie in the same way that "Rosemary's Baby" kind of is. Except with "Rosemary's Baby," there's this kind - it's all about this mounting suspicion that there's a monster growing inside of you. And with "The Lost Daughter," it's about a monster that's already there...

HOLMES: Yeah.

ULABY: ...Inside of you.

HOLMES: Yeah.

ULABY: And that monster is female rage and the capacity not just to give life, but to destroy it.

HOLMES: Yeah.

ULABY: And the movie is about that paradox.

HOLMES: It is. And it's interesting to me because I thought of it as, like, it's a very empathetic horror movie. I think it comes at motherhood with very much a sense that it's understandable how ambivalence is part of motherhood for Leda. There's a wonderful scene where she is asked by this family, by this group and actually by the pregnant woman who's kind of the more assertive leader of this group, played by Dagmara Dominczyk, who, by the way, you might know from "Succession," where she plays Karolina - she is this pregnant woman who comes over and asks Leda to basically move down the beach.

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DAGMARA DOMINCZYK: (As Callie) You don't mind moving, right?

COLMAN: (As Leda) No, I'm fine here.

DOMINCZYK: (As Callie) No, it's just about switching umbrellas so that my family can be together.

COLMAN: (As Leda) No, I understand that, but I have no desire to move.

DOMINCZYK: (As Callie) Honestly, I don't even know what to say to you 'cause it's just about moving down the beach a few feet.

HOLMES: And there's this really interesting sense that she is resisting kind of being pushed around at this point in her life. And it's clear that she has a lot of sadness about her experiences with parenting. It's not clear for long sections of the film, like, what is that sadness coming from? Is it grief in the literal sense? They don't initially tell you what happened with her. You know, what are they getting at? It takes a while to kind of play that out. And I think Olivia Colman is very good at playing that in a way that still remains incredibly, like, easy to understand.

ULABY: You know, so much of the movie is about being a bad mother...

HOLMES: Oh, for sure.

ULABY: ...You know, and about the fear of being a bad mother and the trying to make peace with having been a bad mother. And, you know, I'm very anxious to hear what realized mothers feel about this movie. I think maybe why I partly deeply related to it is there's no more deeper lost daughter than never having had one at all. I mean, I think everyone who dreams of having a child at all imagines, will I be a good parent or a bad parent?

HOLMES: Right.

ULABY: And I think the fears and anxieties about that - that's so part of the human experience. You don't have to have a child to reckon with the cost of bad parenting.

HOLMES: Sure. Yeah. And I want to talk a little bit about Maggie Gyllenhaal's directing because one of the things that I noticed about this - and particularly, I think it's very confident for a feature debut for a director because the way that she directs it - particularly, there are these very extreme close-ups, particularly of the women and the women's bodies in this film, that I think really bring you into that - like, it's not body horror by any means, those shots, but it does bring you into this very close physical sense of how mothers give their body over to that experience in a very particular way for a period of time. That sort of tells you how for these particular women - for Leda but also for Nina - giving birth has been a very intense bodily experience and has changed and transformed them in a way, and it gets at sort of the demands on the body. Does that make sense? Do you know what I'm saying?

ULABY: It does. And, you know, you were talking about, you know, the deep-seated resentment in this movie. And one of the moms is played by Dakota Johnson. All Dakota Johnson wears basically in this movie...

HOLMES: Yes.

ULABY: ...Is a bathing suit and eyeliner. And she looks...

HOLMES: Yes.

ULABY: ...Amazing. And there's something almost grotesque to her own perfection, to this, like, body that has given birth...

HOLMES: Right.

ULABY: ...And yet somehow seems to have not.

HOLMES: Well, and how Leda kind of feels about that, I think is one of the dynamics that you pick up on in the film.

ULABY: You know, I also - can I just also just fangirl up...

HOLMES: Sure.

ULABY: ...Just one second by saying that Maggie Gyllenhaal is herself the daughter of filmmakers? It's so clear in this movie that she knows precisely...

HOLMES: Yeah.

ULABY: ...What she's doing. It doesn't feel like a first film. She's obviously working with the best in the business. Everyone around her is making her look great, but she has such a powerful directorial vision that I just felt cheated that she hasn't been making films behind the camera for her entire career.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, I think that's a great point 'cause I want to talk a little bit about how this film struck me as a little bit meta, as an examination of not only these characters but also kind of women in film and specifically in Hollywood because, you know, we talked about Dakota Johnson. And like Maggie Gyllenhaal, she comes from a family of, you know, movie people, right? Her mother is Melanie Griffith, who dealt with being objectified and, you know, shown topless in "Working Girl," which is totally unnecessary to that movie. And it's kind of one of the most, to me, famous gratuitous topless shots in an otherwise terrific movie.

And also, I was reading an interview with Maggie Gyllenhaal where she talked about something that she had heard Meryl Streep say, which is, if you're an actress and you have an idea, deliver it with a spoonful of sugar. And Maggie Gyllenhaal said, it's very good advice. It's very smart. However, my desire was not to have to do that and not to have other people have to do that. And so she talks about trying to create this environment where you could get ideas from actors and where actors were free to share.

Like, in this movie about mothers, this generational echo of actors and Hollywood women - like, look, this is not shade to Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep was in a completely different environment than Maggie Gyllenhaal is in. But this kind of generational issue as between, like, Maggie Gyllenhaal's experiences as an actor and the sets that she wants to create as a director and then looking at Dakota Johnson, who was so, you know, intensely sexualized when she was in the "Fifty Shades Of Grey" movies, but who has also been really funny and good in lots of things and comes from this legacy - to me, it's all kind of about doing the best you can in the circumstances you're in. And it really gave the movie additional texture to me.

ULABY: It's wild. I mean, you know, when you think about it, Dakota's Johnson's grandmother, Melanie Griffith's mom, Tippi Hedren...

HOLMES: Right. Yes.

ULABY: ...Was sexually harassed by Alfred Hitchcock.

HOLMES: Right.

ULABY: And here she is in a movie. She's - it's actually really one of her second movies by a female auteur with - I would argue, the first one is "Fifty Shades Of Grey." It's also worth sort of thinking in the sort of the metaverse of "The Lost Daughter" that this is a book written by a woman who is very intentionally invisible, made by the kind of woman who could not be more visible, a movie star.

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, and I think when you even think about Olivia Colman as the star of this - who is so, so amazing in this and we have not really talked about very much, but who I think her presence in this is so stunning - all the stuff that's in here about, like, women and stages of life, you can find it in, like, 18 different places in this movie, which is not to take anything away from the story itself 'cause I think the story itself is a stunner. But it's also just a really - it's a project that also just has a lot to say about the way Hollywood works and the way the lives of women in Hollywood work.

Well, we want to know what you think about "The Lost Daughter." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you so much for being here, Neda. I'm so happy that you liked this movie 'cause I did, too.

ULABY: It was a real pleasure, both to watch and to get to talk about with you.

HOLMES: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, subscribe to our newsletter. It's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about the Showtime series "Yellowjackets."

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