The Movie Waffler New Release Review - What Maisie Knew | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - What Maisie Knew

Contemporary retelling of Henry James' novel.

Directed by: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Starring: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham

Susanna (Moore), a rock singer, and Beale (Coogan), an art dealer, are embroiled in a battle for custody of their six-year-old daughter, Maisie (Aprile). Neither particularly cares for the child but both are determined to win custody, purely to spite the other. When Beale marries Maisie's young Scottish nanny, Margo (Vanderham), Susanna sees this as a cynical move to curry favor with the courts. Determined not to give Beale this advantage, Susanna weds young bartender Lincoln (Skarsgard). Unlike her real parents, both Lincoln and Margo show genuine affection to Maisie and, when circumstances continue to push them together, Lincoln and Margo begin to fall for each other.
The high concept plot of Henry James' late 19th century novel seems tailor made for the sort of rom-com guff that usually stars Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler and an irritating kid from the Jonathan Lipnicki pre-school of acting. Thankfully, Hollywood execs aren't big on classic American literature and so the indie pair of McGehee and Siegel have been able to adapt James' work without any climactic races to airports, handsome villains or sassy ethnic best friends. While they largely eschew sentimentality, McGehee and Siegel avoid the darkness of the source material. "Charming" seems to have become something of a dirty word in modern cinema, where a film is only considered an "adult drama" if it's drab and depressing. 'What Maisie Knew' has charm in spades.
In less subtle hands, this could be a mawkish travesty, with a Disney Club child actress spouting "insightful" dialogue well beyond her years. Thankfully, Maisie is a realistic six-year-old and, far from having a collection of wise-ass soundbites,  is a largely silent character. Aprile is fantastic in the role, conveying more emotion with her eyes than the likes of Dakota Fanning could have ever accomplished with any amount of dialogue. She's present in almost every frame, which means we see the quartet of adults only when in her presence, biting their tongues so as not to upset her. This is the one decision that really elevates the film above similar dramas. There are no shouty arguments, instead we have whispered rage and unspoken desire.
Last year we had two examples of how not to base your film around children ('Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close', 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'). 2013, however, has been a vintage year for child-based film ('Mud', 'Broken', 'Wadjda'). Kids are not the insightful dwarf-philosophers so many bad screen-writers think they are. They're simply smaller, dumber, more naive versions of us and, when portrayed this way, they can make for great movie characters.

Eric Hillis