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Emotion, Mental health

Waves of powerful emotion

Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo reviews The Lost Daughter (Netflix, 2021), with spoilers.

10 January 2022

A powerful drama based on a book of the same name by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter follows Leda (Olivia Coleman) as a College Professor in her late forties, mother of two adult daughters. During their early years, she battled severe and untreated postnatal depression and continues to be consumed with guilt and grief many years later.

We join Leda as she begins holidaying in Greece. Her desire to be alone is apparent from the outset, working while on her sunbed and minimising interactions with others. However, there is also dissonance as she presents as incredibly lonely at times when observing others interacting around her. We are also introduced to a young mother (Dakota Johnson) who strikes up an immediate connection with Leda. There is a moment where it feels almost like she knows what Leda has experienced and is trying to communicate the same in return. 

I was immediately struck by the waves of powerful emotion that Leda experiences throughout the film. They are almost palpable. There is a poignant moment when she is walking to a restaurant, stops in the street and doubles over with what appears to be overwhelming emotion. She also reacts with a sharp intake of breath when she first sees the young mother interacting with her daughter. She is almost 'mesmerised' watching them. She appears vulnerable and it is at times unsettling to watch. These moments of vulnerability, which I found myself reacting to with quite intense empathy at times, are also matched with a different side to Leda. She is very assertive, almost overly so. This can make her character almost unlikeable in some parts. There is one example where she is asked by a family if she would mind moving her sunbed to allow them to be together and celebrate a birthday. She refuses. This is not the only time that her character is seen as unlikeable during the film. Leda's recollection of events could be called into question, and she is also seen to make some strange decisions in respect to her behaviour, such as taking a doll that belongs to the daughter of the mother she met on the beach. The child is bereft, yet Leda continues to keep the doll in her apartment. 

Occasionally, Leda allows herself to be present in the moment, experiencing small pleasures to connect her with the world again; swimming in the sea, and feeling the sun on her face. Equally there are fierce moments where she is catapulted back to her early parenting years and the postnatal depression she experienced. 

Throughout the film we see flashbacks of Leda's early parenting days. We see her frequently overwhelmed with parenting and trying to work as academic. She appears disengaged and disinterested in her two young daughters. We see her lying on the floor and wanting to sleep when they try to bring her attention to something they are doing. There are also scenes where she is visibly angry and verbally aggressive towards her daughters. She also displays her anger in the form of throwing her child's doll out of the window and we see it break on the street below.

We see other flashbacks where her partner is observing her, and I wonder if he is aware of or possibly minimising her symptoms. There are also suggestions of difficulties in her relationship with her partner. At one point we are shown that she returns to academia and travels to a conference. She ultimately has an affair with another lecturer, and this leads to her deciding to leave her family for three years before then returning to the family home. We are introduced to the concept of guilt as she informs the young mother from the beach that she "left them". Multiple themes emerge throughout the film including Leda's guilt, mood, anger and shame. The culmination of factors, including her passion for her career and wanting her own 'adult' life while also parenting, is something many mothers will be able to relate to. When an old life meets a new one, sacrifices can be required to meet the demands of being a parent.

Postnatal depression is defined by persistent feelings of sadness and low mood, lack of enjoyment and loss of interest in the wider world, trouble sleeping or sleepy during the day, withdrawing from contact with other people. These are all observable in the flashbacks of Leda's early parenting life. Postnatal depression is one of the most common conditions for women in their lifespan (Abdollahi et al., 2016). Left untreated it can lead to a multitude of effects on both the mother and child. Theories include psychosocial, biological, and evolutionary. The role of expectations such as social media are also significant factors and often create an image of a perfect 'do it all mum' i.e., working, child rearing and being happy!

It is important to recognise that postnatal depression is not the fault of the mother, and it does not equate to being a 'bad' parent, which is a common cognition amongst those experiencing the condition. This is evident in Leda's journey through guilt and regret. The film highlights an important point that it is not frequently recognised – these feelings can continue/occur when children are older and not just when they are babies. Research by the Dr Elena Netsi at the University of Oxford suggests persistent postnatal depression increases mothers' risk of continuing to experience depressive symptoms beyond the postnatal year, with high levels found up until 11 years after childbirth. This was the case for Leda. 

We learn that Leda's career as an academic is important to her and most certainly a factor in her postnatal depression. We see flashbacks to her early parenting years where she is trying to work and care for her children at the same time. While there is research to indicate lower levels of postnatal depression in women with a career prior to childbirth, the impact of the loss of identity associated with having children and putting a career on hold (as in Leda's case) may be a significant contributing factor to her postnatal depression. 

There are many scenes where we see Leda displaying anger towards her children in the form of verbal aggression and property damage. Anger is a rarely talked about symptom of postnatal depression, yet is considered part of the perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Anger is often seen as a more taboo subject. Significant others may not consider it as coming under the realm of postnatal depression. Anger can be overwhelming and lead to additional feelings of guilt and shame, especially the behaviours associated with it. Leda struggles with guilt over her past behaviour towards her daughters, and the impact this has on her current presentation is evident. Christine H Ou et al (2018) conducted an integrative review and found anger to be a salient mood disturbance for some postnatally depressed women. They talk about anger in terms of accompanying aggression, powerlessness as a component of depression and lastly anger occurring as a result of expectations being violated. The third example we may see as relevant to Leda and her work-life balance. Attempts to find 'escape routes' are often a common occurrence in postnatal depression; we see this in Leda's behaviour such as travelling for conferences and eventually leaving her family to live with her lover whom she had an affair with.

As we understand Leda a little more, there is a poignant scene towards the end of the film where Leda is suddenly asked by the young mother whom she has befriended, "will it pass?" She then follows this with the statement: "not sure what to call it". They both know what she means. The intuitive nature of this interaction is quite powerful to watch and confirms suspicions about the long-term impact of postnatal depression upon Leda, now in her late forties. 

The combination of heartfelt grief and bemusing behaviour make Leda a very interesting character indeed. Overall, The Lost Daughter is an emotional journey that needs to be taken. 

- Reviewed by Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo (CPsychol, AFBPsS). HCPC Registered Counselling Psychologist.

Email: [email protected]


Twitter: @CirilloDr 

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