By Simon Miraudo
August 28, 2013
(Republished December 16, 2013)
What Maisie Knew runs its titular, newly-orphaned moppet through so many heartbreaking scenarios and encounters, I was stirred to start drawing up the adoption papers myself. A divorce drama seen exclusively through the eyes of its seven-year-old victim, it's a contemporary retelling of Henry James' 1897 book of the same name. Writers Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright and directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel update the London-based tale, relocating it to New York. The picture's literary origins will not be perceptible to all, so sparse and economic is the storytelling. We only sometimes see snatches of scenes, and hear fragments of arguments, depending on Maisie's proximity - or interest - in the chaos unfolding around her. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens keeps us close to her at all times, allowing us to live in her wonderful, somewhat-unaware child world, yet we still fully grasp the realities of her familial turmoil. Maisie's obliviousness and innocence is perhaps the only thing that keeps this from being classified as emotional torture porn.
Maisie (the remarkable Onata Aprile) is the daughter of recently-separated rocker Susanna (Julianne Moore) and British art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan). He ends up wedding the twenty-year-old au pair, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), and she revenge-marries the kind-hearted, uncomplicated bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). The parents cruelly, passive-aggressively, use their daughter as a weapon in their ongoing battles with one another. Susanna's jealousy over Maisie's affections even drives her away from Lincoln, who proves to be a far more capable father than the distant, philandering Beale could have ever hoped. The musician mother eventually leaves to go on tour. leaving odd couple Lincoln and Margo to team-up and give Maisie some semblance of stability. When sweet relief finally comes to the poor girl, it's a warm, euphoric welcome (no matter how unlikely this resolution might be).
Whenever a child gives a startling screen performance, an argument traditionally emerges as to how much "acting" the kid was actually doing. Neither Tatum O'Neal nor Quvenzhané Wallis have been exempt from this debate. Since when did the "quantity" of acting ever factor into its merits? Even if a young actor learnt their line readings phonetically, all that truly matters is how that ingredient enhances the flavour of the feature as a whole. Onata Aprile gives one of the year's best turns, in that she anchors her movie, never over-reaches, and exudes joy and sorrow at precisely the right moments. She inspires such affection from the audience. Our desire to care for a protagonist hasn't been this potent since perhaps the release of Milo and Otis.
Moore's portrayal of a real garbage person (and I don't simply mean 'garbage' because of the Shirley Manson comparison) threatens to slide into outright villainy, so extreme and awful is her (non-violent) abuse of Maisie (and Lincoln!). Coogan fares much better as the likeable, seemingly sympathetic father, whose actions aren't nearly as hysterical, but arguably twice as mean. Vanderham and Skarsgård are an appealing duo, and more than capable for carrying the brunt of the drama when their more seasoned acting partners are off screen. Skarsgård, in particular, has never appeared as easy, comfortable, and adorable as he does here. That is where I do take some umbrage with the filmmakers: to make a guy that handsome seem that sweet and capable a dad is just unfair. How are the rest of us ever supposed to compete?
What Maisie Knew will be available on Quickflix from December 20, 2013.