A Review of What Maisie Knew, directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel
by REBECCA, May 27, 2013
In a cinematic landscape that lately seems to be 95% remakes, updates, sequels, and replicas of Swedish movies that were already awesome, What Maisie Knew, an update of Henry James’ 1897 serial novel, had great potential to be more of the same. Instead, McGehee and Siegel’s interpretation is utterly compelling.
Maisie’s mother, Susanna, (Julianne Moore as a rock star trying to keep her career alive) and father, Beale, (Steve Coogan as a slick art dealer) separate and get joint custody of Maisie, who bounces back and forth between them. Her father quickly marries her former nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham, with a charming Scottish accent and little else to recommend her), in an attempt to sue for full custody. Maisie’s mother retaliates by marrying Lincoln, a bartender who she pays for the privilege (Alexander Skarsgård, with just the right air of distracted sweetness). With these four yahoos trying to juggle Maisie and their own lives, snarls ensue: they miss pick-ups at school, drop Maisie off early, try to buy her affection with gifts.
But this isn’t a farce, and there is nothing amusing about the mess the adults in Maisie’s life make. Susanna wants Maisie to love her best no matter what she does and is fiercely jealous of anyone else in her life; Beale wants to deprive Susanna of her, but has no time to take care of her himself. More and more, Maisie’s care shifts to Margo and Lincoln, who begin to know each other through Maisie, as well. Julianne Moore is great, as always, with a slightly unhinged, career-obsessed Susanna, who is just lovable enough to appeal. Steve Coogan is slimy as can be and trades women like the art he deals. Margo seems to genuinely care for Maisie, but is a total milquetoast. Lincoln, whose marriage to Susanna is sham enough not to disable him as Margo’s does, is the one who Maisie latches onto, and it’s that relationship that is most enjoyable to watch.
This isn’t a film with the message “isn’t it terrible when children don’t have nuclear families”; it isn’t trying to suggest that children are the most important thing in the world so we should drop everything and devote our lives to them. And that’s very much in its favor. It doesn’t need to point those fingers because the film isn’t about Maisie’s parents at all—the only access we get to them is through Maisie. What Maisie Knew is Maisie’s story, and we often see the world through her eyes, the camera at a child’s height. Onata Aprile is captivating and her performance makes the film. Against the backdrop of her parents’ chaos, screaming, and crying, she is understated and self-contained. What Maisie Knew is a quiet movie, so if you’re looking for a movie packed with grand passions and climaxes, this isn’t it. The film manages, though, to show us the things that Maisie knows—how to play with a toy horse, how to make a sandwich, how to wait, how to fall asleep—and make them beautiful and scary and heartbreaking for us.