What Maisie Knew
Posted May 31, 2013 by Daniel Hodgson in
What Maisie Knew is a modern, loose adaptation of the novel of the same name by Henry James. As a narrative experiment, it doesn’t completely work, but the cast is in fine form, and the movie has something to say about our era of self-absorption.
The story: Beale (Steve Coogan) storms out of the apartment after an argument with Susanne (Julianne Moore). Soon after, the bickering couple find themselves in a custody battle for their daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile). The judge awards them joint custody, and Maisie finds herself drifting between homes.
However, neither Suzanne nor Beale have time for her. Suzanne clings to her career as a rock star despite her age, and Beale’s job as an art dealer has him out of the country much of the time. Maisie finds herself in the custody of her parents’ new, younger spouses, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender, and Margot (Joanna Vanderham), her nanny.
The movie is about Maisie, but Maisie is the object of the movie, rather than the subject. In other words, What Maisie Knew is about the person everyone is fighting for, rather than the people fighting for her themselves. They are in the background, often off-screen having muffled arguments. We are distanced from them; the effect is alienating, when we need to be as invested in the people struggling for Maisie as much as Maisie herself.
What Maisie Knew slips into melodrama, with good parents and bad parents struggling for the child. Who Maisie should end up with is obvious. It’s conflict without a real contest; it’s weightless. In a better drama, no parent would be perfect, but each would have a valid claim on the child.
Performances are good all around, but the film rests on the tiny shoulders of Aprile, who carries the burden with ease. She’s a natural. This is one of the finest child performances since Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Aprile is in every scene of the movie, and most every shot, sharing scenes with Moore and Skarsgård, themselves capable actors, with whom she has remarkable chemistry.
Though it doesn’t completely work for the storytelling, keeping her on camera goes to the film’s credit. It does not cheat, does not cut away to scenes that don’t involve her to advance the relationships between the adults. We only know what Maisie knows, and identification with her is complete.
That’s the film’s point. The child’s well-being is what matters, even if her parents are slow to realize that.