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Dakota Johnson, Olivia Colman

“THE LOST DAUGHTER” My rating: B (In theaters)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Many a man has bailed on his family and kept his social status…but let a woman exhibit indifference toward her children and the pillars of civilization start to crumble.

“The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s impressive writing/directing debut, is about a bad mother. At least that’s what a traditional moralist would say.

But things aren’t nearly that cut and dried in this smart, thought-provoking adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s  novel. 

This is a deeply ambivalent, jaw-droopingly subtle effort that eschews the usual big dramatic exposition (“…this is why I did what I did…”) in favor of showing us, building its story (and its case) through the slow accumulation of images and information.

Leda (Olivia Colman) is vacationing alone on a Greek island.  She’s a college professor, a Brit by birth but working in America, and she’s going to spend her summer sitting in the sun and researching her next book.

She tolerates the scuzzy American ex-pat (Ed Harris) who manages the vacation home she rents.  And she’s amused by Will (Paul Mescal), her eager-to-please cabana boy. They enjoy a chaste flirtation.

But Leda is absolutely mesmerized — and appalled — by the family with whom she shares the beach.  They’re a loud, obnoxious bunch.  The head of the clan seems vaguely shady;  he’s got a pregnant trophy wife half his age.

The real object of Leda’s fascination, though, is the man’s daughter-in-law, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who has a handsome but pushy husband and a pretty but spoiled young daughter. 

Lena appears obsessed with the tiny interactions between weary, frustrated mother and willful child. When the little girl goes missing the family is thrown into a panic. Leda finds the child and returns her to the fold…but not without secretly claiming a souvenir of the encounter that will come back to haunt her.

“The Lost Daughter” is being described as a “psychological thriller.” Actually, “psychological jigsaw puzzle” seems more accurate.

Through casual conversation — Gyllenhaal’s dialogue is amazingly unforced and natural — we learn that Leda has two daughter, now in their 20s, who live with her ex.  Apparently she rarely sees them.

Peter Sarsgaartd, Jessie Buckley

In flashbacks we see her as a young mother (played now by Jessie Buckley), struggling to balance family and career, and engaging in an affair with a much-admired professor (Peter Sarsgaard, Guyllenhaal’s spouse) that will push her further away from her conventional existence.

Most women have days in which they would just as soon dump the husband and kids and strike out for parts unknown.  Leda is the rare individual who actually kicks motherhood aside in the hope of discovering a different sort of fulfillment. 

But one does not achieve that sort of liberation without paying a huge emotional price, and the wonder of Colman’s performance is how she tells us everything about what Leda is feeling without actually ever saying anything. 

A lesser filmmaker might make excuses for her heroine’s choices, providing her with explanatory monologues, poking at every little shred of guilt clinging to Leda’s consciousness.

There’s no need for that when you have a leading lady with Colman’s range.

Is Leda a heroine or a villainess?

Why not neither? Or both?

| Robert W. Butler

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