The directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel proved with their very first feature, the psychological thriller Suture, that they had a command of style that made them impossible to dismiss, even if the movie itself came off as emotionally cold -- a pattern that more or less held true throughout their next few pictures. However, their fifth feature, a modern adaptation of the Henry James novel What Maisie Knew, is not only the best work of their careers, but one of the finest films of 2013.
Onata Aprile stars as the title character, a six-year-old girl whose rock-star mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and her British art-dealer father Beale (Steve Coogan) are on the brink of divorce. Soon, her emotionally immature mom and relentlessly self-centered dad are using Maisie to get back at each other during the ongoing custody battle. In order to impress the judges, Beale marries Maisie’s nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), while Susanna quickly responds by tying the knot with Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a much younger bartender she barely knows. As Susanna and Beale continue to put their own interests ahead of their child, their respective new spouses each show an affinity for Maisie and a knack for providing the emotional support the girl has largely been living without.
The power of What Maisie Knew sneaks up on you, in large part because McGehee and Siegel pull off the remarkable feat of letting you know exactly what’s going on in this story, while simultaneously allowing you to experience it from Maisie’s point of view. Credit the tight screenplay from Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright for presenting this situation and the characters with deft efficiency. We hear the bickering between Susanna and Beale just as Maisie does, and the audience understands how bad these two people are for and to each other, even though Maisie is too naïve to comprehend it.
This dichotomy -- call it a real-time dramatic irony -- fuels the film’s poignancy so fully that McGehee and Siegel don’t have to build up to giant melodramatic explosions. They stick to showing us the world from Maisie’s point of view; the camera is often set just a few feet from the ground so that we adopt Maisie’s eyeline, and the recurring visual motif of the film is an adult physically lowering themselves to talk to this far-from-demonstrative girl.
The performances are realistically unforced. Coogan, whose entire career has been built on playing smarmy asses, oozes unctuousness as naturally as he breathes. The depth of Beale’s egocentrism is monstrous, but it comes out in the most mundane ways -- constantly checking his phone while talking to Maisie -- as well as in his blatant maneuvers to infuriate his ex-wife. Moore plays Susanna like a child herself, emotionally greedy and needy, and unable to think of her daughter as her own person who might have thoughts that have nothing to do with her mother.
As for the young lead, judging children’s performances in movies is always tricky. It’s hard to know how much of it was simply make-believe, savvy manipulation by the filmmakers, or conscious pretending on the part of the performer. Whatever combination Siegel and McGehee employed, the results are stellar. As a character, Maisie mostly watches -- she takes in the world around her without responding much at all -- and Aprile has a delicate face that communicates how her character absorbs her surroundings and simply accepts whatever is going on. Only at the end does Maisie express whom she wants to be with, and it’s a moment just as natural and compelling as the rest of Aprile’s performance.
Most movies about divorce and fractured families play up the tumultuous melodrama, but What Maisie Knew goes for something much quieter and more profound. It’s a subtly ambitious film that’s smartly written, beautifully acted, and perfectly directed. leave a comment --Perry Seibert