May 6, 2013

What Maisie Knew

An affecting modern adaptation of the novel by Henry James, this is a well directed movie by David Siegel and Scott McGehee, who get good performances from a solid cast, and particularly from the remarkable 6 year-old Onata Aprile, as Maisie. She is natural and unspoiled by too much training, and she is wonderful.
We see everything through Maisie's point of view as her parents, Susannah and Beale (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan), divorce and then use her as a pawn for their petty power struggles, trying to each possess custody while being utterly inattentive and insensitive to the child.
In a fit of pique, and in order to gain custody, both parents instantly marry partners much younger and much more decent than them. Then they proceed to foist the little girl on them without compunction as they pursue their selfish business elsewhere. Luckily for Maisie, these two (Joanna Vanderham and Alexander Skarsgård) are kind and sensible souls, but even so, the feeling of a void left by parents who protest their love but do not show it, is tough going. It is increasingly horrifying to see Maisie bouncing from one place to the other, with the parents never around.
That Maisie takes abandonment in such good stride raises the question of verisimilitude, since children don't tend to take to parental neglect well. I expected Maisie to act out at some point, as children under such circumstances do. But this Maisie is poised with an innocence tempered by her own sense of knowing, and a steady will to survive moment by moment which precludes her from the tantrums and outbursts her parents are prone to. She behaves with far more composure than her monstrously egotistical parents, well-to-do people one never understands what brought them together, except the laws of attraction between assholes.
Julianne Moore plays a ferociously unlikable rock star. Manipulative, needy, self-absorbed, she still finds ways to empathize with Susannah by inflecting her with a modicum of self-awareness that she thinks is enough to give her a pass as a mother. An "I know I'm bad, so I'm excused", kind of thing. She has one redeeming scene, in which she finally and for the first time abdicates her own desires for the sake of her child. Steve Coogan plays Beale as the kind of hyper-articulate wit who deflects everything with lame attempts at humor, but who can't commit to any responsibility which is not to himself first. These people have feelings, but they come second to their own gargantuan needs.
The movie is shot from the point of view of a child who hears and sees things she may not completely understand, but who knows, instinctively, what they mean for her. The audience has to fill in the blanks just as she does, except we have more tools at our disposal to understand what kind of parents she has. She's blown around like a leaf in the wind and one keeps hoping she will not be torn to pieces. Maisie turns out to be a resilient little girl, which is about as happy an ending as a story like this can muster.
What Maisie Knew is handled with great tenderness, without much sentimentality. It is quietly devastating.

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