What Maisie Knew
by George Sax
What Maisie Knew
What Maisie knew is indeed the question. It’s one Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s movie is devoted to examining. They go about their narrative investigation of their six-year-old titular character’s (Onata Aprile) increasingly complex and fraught experiences with two of the most unsuitable parents in the five boroughs of New York City. These two precariously coupled people have no recourse to such mitigating factors as burdening socio-economic status and straits. This is a high-end, high-maintenance pair, for whom, we can see, parenthood is increasingly an irksome distraction from their self-satisfactions.
Adapted and updated (by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright) from Henry James’s 1897 novel of the same name, What Maisie Knew acquires its dramatic insights and poignance from the little girl’s unstable position amid her parents’ nastily degenerating partnership. She’s simultaneously a very interested observer, a pawn in their competitive mutual struggle, and the object of their favor-currying efforts. And eventually, a sometimes expendable casualty.
Maisie’s mother is Susanna (Julianne Moore), an emotionally explosive and immature rock singer somewhat past the apex of her success. Father Beale (Steve Coogan) is a high-powered art dealer who deploys his oily geniality and manipulative charm even against his vulnerable child.
Through all this, Maisie maintains a surprising equanimity and a generous spirit. What Maisie Knew begins on a soft note of maternal attentiveness, but almost immediately we catch the tenor of things as her parents bicker in the background and the young nanny, Margot (Joanna Vanderham), tries to shield the kid with pizza and a tic-tac-toe game. How much Maisie is really unaware of what’s going on is unclear. She seems passive and loving even as Susanna and Beale continue to prove their unworthiness. Aprile’s steady, natural performance gives the movie a convincing feel even when events seem a little trumped up. Vanderham and Alexander Skarsgard are fine as the two grownups who unexpectedly combine to provide the only reliable affection and concern in her life.
McGehee and Siegel have a light, sure touch. They continually confine their movie’s point-of-view to what we know Maisie knows, and it gradually becomes clearer that she’s begun to understand enough to draw some defensive distinctions.
Transferring James’ Victorian story to contemporary Manhattan leaves some of his milieu and class expectations missing, a little awkwardly, along with James’s ironic tone. But What Maisie Knew offers a cogent take on the appalling consequences of narcissistically centered people establishing intimate relationships.
Watch the trailer for What Maisie Knew
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v12n23 (Summer Guide, week of Thursday, June 6) > Film Reviews > What Maisie Knew
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