WHAT MAISIE KNEW
Unwitting 7-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is caught in the middle of a custody battle between her mother Suzanna (Julianne Moore), an aging rock star, and her English father, Beale (Steve Coogan), a major art dealer. In a race to win the court's advantage, Beale marries Maisie's nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), prompting Suzanna in turn to marry friend and local bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). As Maisie is shuttled back and forth between her parents, she comes to rely more and more on her parents' new spouses, who begin to see how selfish and damaged Maisie's parents really are.
Review by Louise Keller:
An innocent child is the pivot for relationships that repulse and attract in this updated adaptation of Henry James' 1897 novel about a little girl floundering between antagonistic, divorced parents. The screenplay captures all the desperation and angst of both unlikeable parents, played to perfection by Julianne Moore as a tattooed rock-chick and Steve Coogan as a self-obsessed English art dealer. Despicable behaviour prompts both parents to make use of partners in new relationships as babysitters, but it is the tragedy of the child caught as the go-between (and beautifully played by Onata Aprile) that pulls our heartstrings.
The film begins by describing the loving relationship between Susanna (Moore) and her 7 year old daughter Maisie (Aprile) and that of Maisie with Beale (Coogan). Susanna repeatedly tells Maisie how much she loves her and in his own way so does Beale; Maisie is accepting of whatever situation is presented. The nature of the dysfunctional relationship quickly becomes apparent and directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel allow the everyday occurrences of raised voices, missed school pick-ups and the antagonism that develops from a relationship that has gone past its use by date.
Much of the time, the camera focuses on Maisie who absorbs everything that is going on around her - from her mother's pot-smoking parties and the presence at her father's apartment of her former babysitter Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who has just moved in. The verdict of the court does nothing to help the situation - joint custody provides new challenges for which neither parent is equipped to handle. The scene in which barman Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) is introduced as Susanna's new husband plays out as ridiculously as the situation deserves. Both Margo and Lincoln have clearly been recruited as convenient babysitters but it becomes quickly apparent that one situation of conflict is simply replaced by another.
The fact that both Margo and Lincoln each establish relationships with Maisie spending quality time with her, make us immediately view them in a positive light. Additionally, it does not escape us that Vanderham and Skarsgård (both easy on the eye) make a lovely couple and ideal surrogate parents for little girl. I like the scene when Maisie takes Lincoln to class as her 'show and tell'. (Skarsgård is an interesting combo of Viggo Mortensen and Stephan Elliott.)
This is a sad tale with too many recognisable glimpses of the world in which we live and in that there is no time for the important things. Situations are glossed over at times and Maisie is depicted as the child we would all like to have, rather than the way children are. The incessant juggling that Maisie endures from one situation to another is emotional wearing, but overall McGehee and Sigel have created an involving work and one that makes us care selectively about its characters.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Although I haven't read Henry James' 1897 novel on which this story is based, we can safely assume that one of the major differences is that the mother was not an ageing rock star in the novel. Many other shifts of tone and tale (and a move from London to New York) seem to have been digested in the adaptation, judging by a cursory examination of the novel, but that is not by itself a criticism. The material, with its themes of a child shuttled between warring, irresponsible, selfish parents is perhaps even more relevant today.
It is an indictment of parents who behave like Susanna (Julianne Moore), and her English art dealer father, Beale (Steve Coogan), and my main reservation about this film is that it is so heavy handed. But I hasten to extract the wonderful young Onata Aprile from that observation; beautifully directed and photographed, Aprile is so good as to make us question if she is acting. But of course she is. And it's a credit to all that her sparse lines of dialogue are genuinely childlike, not adult-speak toned down with a childish accent. Her innocence is not marred by guile thank goodness, the script's great success.
I also hesitate to implicate Moore and Coogan in my criticism, since they are in the hands of the two directors - both male, working from a script - by two women. I mention this only to negate any suggestion that there is some sort of gender war agenda at play. Actually, both mother and father are shown to be equally undeserving of their beautiful child. Coogan is especially good in all his cold disconnect, showing just once and briefly, that he recognises his flaw.
Cared for first by Beale's housemaid-turned lover-turned-useful wife Margo (Joanna Vanderham), and later by Suzanna's bartender friend-turned useful husband Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), Maisie finds in them the sort of loving care she should have from her parents. They, too, deliver fine, sympathetic characterisations but there is always a sense of simplistic writing and directing at play. This tends to mute the emotional impact, although there is quite a lot of that left even so.
Skarsgård is the innocent equal of Maisie's childhood innocence and his warmth is a crucial element in the film's balancing act of tone.
Where the novel follows Maisie and apparently emphasises education, the film doesn't. What happens to Maisie after the credits roll is a matter for conjecture, and perhaps some hope -at least in the film. (James is not a happy endings sort of writer ...)
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WHAT MAISIE KNEW (TBA)
CAST: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Steve Coogan, Joanna Vanderham, Onata Aprile, Emma Holzer, Diana Garcia, Samantha Buck, Stephen Mailer
PRODUCER: Daniel Crown, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, William Teitler, Charles Weinstock
DIRECTOR: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
SCRIPT: Carroll Cartwright, Nancy Doyne (novel by Henry James)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Giles Nuttgens
EDITOR: Madeleine Gavin
MUSIC: Nick Urata
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Kelly McGehee
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Rialto
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 22, 2013