What Maisie Knew

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/23/13 18:12:01

"Custody battles stink. This movie doesn't."
5 stars (Awesome)

This modern-day adaptation of Henry James's "What Maisie Knew" appears to have been somewhat freely adapted from the novel, although not necessarily in the ways one might expect. Divorces and custody battles may have become more common since the book's publication in 1897, but the underlying issues remain all too similar. Capturing perspective in a film means doing things a bit differently, but it's something that this adaptation does very well.

Maisie (Onata Aprile) is six or seven years old, lives in New York City, and has a pretty sweet disposition despite the way her parents fight all the time. It's not long before Susanna (Julianne Moore), a rock star on the downward slope of her career, and Beale (Steve Coogan), an English art dealer whose work frequently takes him out of town, finally split for good. The court awards them joint custody, with each scheduled to have Maisie for ten days at a time. Maisie is somewhat surprised to see her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) when she first arrives at her father's new apartment, which prompts Susanna to respond with her own marriage of convenience, in her case to young bartender Lincoln (Alesander Skarsgård), lest the court find Beale is providing a more stable environment.

Divorce is a rough road for most kids, but it's interesting to see how directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel and screenwriters Nancy Doyne & Caroll Cartwright emphasize certain parts of it. They show Maisie waiting to be picked up a lot, and when she is collected or dropped off, it's almost always by someone in a taxi. Part of this, naturally, is about this specific group of characters living in a city where having your own car is crazy and showing that their daughter is not nearly the first concern that she should be, but it also seems very much to be about showing what an in-between, rootless status Maisie is being stuck into. This divorce is terrible, certainly, but it's something that speaks to almost all splits where children are involved.

The entire film is told from Maisie's point of view - I don't think it has a single scene without Onata Aprile, and there are very few cheats like showing what's going on while Maisie is asleep on the one hand or muting sound/blurring the image on the other. Instead, the filmmakers are judicious in what they show the audience, maybe focusing the camera on Maisie playing with a turtle while the adults are saying adult things, or spending relatively little time on the mechanics of the legal system even though there's time to show her doing normal little-girl stuff at school. There's certainly plenty of grown-up story to be pieced together - and some bitterly dark humor, as well - but it's seldom pushed to the foreground; like the adult looking back on her childhood issues, the audience will recognize the broad strokes but have to fill in the details themselves.

Putting so much of the movie on a girl as young as Aprile is chancy, but she handles it well enough. Sometimes it's hard to know with actors this young how much of a performance is actual acting and how much is the filmmakers setting up situations to bring forth the reaction they need and then editing well - especially in a movie like this where the delivery of specific lines is not particularly important - but it doesn't really matter so much as the result is there. However the filmmakers manage it, the viewer may not necessarily get into Maisie's head, but her heart is open, and scenes are not just filled with uncertainty and worry, or the specific feeling of being a kid up way too late, but curiosity and excitement and joy as well.

Doing the movie from Maisie's perspective in some ways presents challenges to the adult actors as well - although the first instinct may be to go broad, it's actually more appropriate to be kind of oblique, reflecting the nature of things being outside a kid's experience. Not that there's ever much doubt what Margo's thinking; Joanna Vanderham is wonderfully expressive and able to hint at a lot going on while always getting across that she's really concerned about this kid. Alexander Skarsgård isn't telling as detailed a story, but the broad strokes are nice; he's good at making Lincoln not be the guy he first appears to be. It's sometimes interesting to watch him play off Julianne Moore, who has the most full character arc to be dug out of the movie; her jealousy is ugly but wholly human; there's something about her that keeps the audience from seeing Susanna as a monster even though she is, in certain ways, terrible. Steve Coogan achieves the same results with Beale, albeit by being distant and hard to figure out; it's the sort of performance that doesn't look like much but would capsize if it were off by more than a few degrees.

Both Moore and Coogan have their own separate final scenes with Aprile, and both are kind of fascinating for the way they end - both similar in how the parents realize something about their daughter as a person and featuring reactions with the internal contradiction between being hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time. Sometimes, that's the best one can hope for out of this situation, so it's very apt indeed that such words are a good way to describe the film as well.

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