Follow by Email

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew is a very sly film. This 2012 film, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, updates an 1897 novel by Henry James about a young girl torn between two awful parents, and the surrogates that hold her life together. I waited for most of the film for another shoe to drop, but when it was over I realized it didn't need that shoe--the unfolding story was enough.

Maisie, as played nicely by Onata Aprile, is caught in a custody battle. Her mother (Julianne Moore) is a hard-boiled rock singer, her dad (Steve Coogan) an easily distracted art dealer. The child lives in luxury, with a Scottish nanny (Joanna Vanderham) and seems perfectly well adjusted.

Her parents split, and a judge awards them equal custody. But both are so narcissistic that she is frequently left in the lurch, and in the care of Vanderham (who has married Coogan) and Moore's new husband, a kind bartender (Alexander Skarsgard). As her real parents spin off into a world of bitterness and neglect, her step-parents prove to be the rock she builds beneath her.

I liked the way film progresses in economic terms. There are no cliched courtroom scenes, and exposition is minimal, as the film asks us to keep up. For example, Vanderham has moved in with Coogan before we've even realized it--no big scene to set it up. Moore retaliates by marrying Skarsgard, but this is also done off-screen. In a way, it contributes to the parents' characters' compulsive behavior.

The other shoe, so to speak, may not surprise some, but I'll withhold it here. This leads to a sunny ending, which might be too optimistic. That leads me to criticizing the characterization of Maisie--the child is eternally upbeat, without ever having a tantrum or seeming unhappy for too long. From what I've seen of six-year-olds, she's too good to be true, as are Vanderham and Skarsgard.

But as for Moore and Coogan, they give deliciously cruel performances. I don't know any actress who has a way with a line like Moore. She often plays good-hearted people, but give her a chance to play a bitch and she's damn good. I very much like Coogan as an actor. His best moment is when he's got Maisie and proposes to take her to England with him. As he explains it to her, he realizes it's not the best for her and withdraws it, and the pain in his face is lovely.

What Maisie Knew is a film about a child for grown-ups, and what it lacks for in scenery-chewing moments it makes up for in subtle, accomplished acting and filmmaking.

No comments:

Post a Comment