wed 30/09/2020

What Maisie Knew | reviews, news & interviews

What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew

Superlative performances fuel Henry James novel updated to New York now

The notion of childhood as any sort of state of grace gets exploded big-time in What Maisie Knew, a largely blistering celluloid updating of the 1897 Henry James novel from The Deep End team of co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel. True (for the most part) to the spirit of its literary source if by no means to the letter, the movie on its own terms captures the terror that adults can inflict on children, a bequest that a brilliant cast makes painfully plain.

The notion of childhood as any sort of state of grace gets exploded big-time in What Maisie Knew, a largely blistering celluloid updating of the 1897 Henry James novel from The Deep End team of co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel. True (for the most part) to the spirit of its literary source if by no means to the letter, the movie on its own terms captures the terror that adults can inflict on children, a bequest that a brilliant cast makes painfully plain. Suffice it to say that by the time Julianne Moore, playing the toxic mother of the eponymous Maisie (Onata Aprile), tells her six-year-old daughter, "a long time ago I was just like you", audiences will be praying that little Maisie doesn't grow up to be just like mum.

Onata Aprile and Steve Coogan in What Maisie KnewMoore plays an ageing, itinerant Manhattan-based rock 'n' roller called Susanna who as the film opens is locked in seemingly perpetual combat with Beale (Steve Coogan, pictured right with Aprile), Maisie's scarcely more comforting dad. This is the sort of father who casually invokes images of decapitation and tells his daughter that she ought to come with him to Britain only to do an immediate about-face on an offer he knows he doesn't want. (Beale's use of the English weather to clinch his argument should generate chuckles aplenty from UK spectators, as may his deadpan deployment of theatrical terms - Jacobean tragedy and farce - to describe the grimly unfolding narrative.)

Tossed this way and that between two self-absorbed adults who arguably do love their daughter but in an often-malign way, the child forges particularly strong attachments to the new partners that have come into each parent's life. Susanna has ensnared a young bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard, in a wonderfully soft-voiced performance that comes to be the nearest Maisie has to a caress), while Beale takes up with Maisie's onetime nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), only to cast her no less adrift than he has his own offspring.   

One could carp about the narrowing options to a scenario that tilts towards an unexpectedly sentimental finish. And yet, even the apparent uplift gets refracted through a climactic face-off between mother and daughter possessed of an emotional rawness that is rare indeed.

Alexander Skarsgard and Onata Aprile in What Maisie KnewWhy isn't this Maisie more indrawn or tantrum-prone or more obviously damaged by the kind of random (or maybe not) psychological abuse that would do many a more robust child in? Screenwriters Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne aren't saying. Nor does a film that occupies some pretty splendid New York apartments make much of economics, which is an area crucial to the societal critique of James, though Skarsgard (pictured left with Aprile) has a lovely scene in which he gently puts Maisie right about the limitations of a life devoted solely to being rich.

It's as a portrait of the pain caused by using children as a pawn that the film stands apart, as it does in a swathe of performances led by Aprile's ability to fold into herself as voices rise around her. The near-ubiquitous Coogan here gives off a scary charm, while first among equals remains the ever-astonishing Moore, who opens up fully to the defensiveness, rage, and need that drive Susanna in different ways at different times. (Her "look how tall he is, he's so tall" to Maisie tells us everything about Susanna's apparently shotgun appropriation of Lincoln.) And when she in desperation checks with Maisie that "I'm still your mommy, right?", it's a tribute to the film that you don't know whether you want this wise-beyond-her-years girl to reply yes or no.

Watch the trailer to What Maisie Knew overleaf

 

 

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