Monday, August 12, 2013

Movie with Abe: What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Released May 3, 2013 / August 12, 2013 (DVD)

Marriage is a very common film subject, and it’s no surprise that divorce would be as well. While it might most frequently be a film’s unfortunate outcome, it can also be the basis for a coming-of-age story of a child molded by his or her parents’ breakup and forced to grow up all too quickly. In the case of “What Maisie Knew,” an affecting drama from the directing duo behind “Uncertainty” and “The Deep End,” its protagonist is extremely young and must mature at an impossible rate to deal with parents who completely ignore her in their bitter battle for custody and who can make the other suffer more.

This film is based on an 1897 novel of the same name by Henry James, and it’s interesting to see an adaptation that comes over a century after the source material and still feels painfully relevant. Julianne Moore’s Susanna is a mother more concerned with her singing career than with making sure her daughter is well taken care of, and Steve Coogan’s Beale travels far too much to pay her any attention. Their separation has already begun at the film’s start, and Susanna’s quick marriage to the kindhearted but odd Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) and Beale’s union with Maisie’s nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) result in Maisie being shuttled constantly but inconsistently between two less-than-capable homes.

What ensues is a bittersweet scenario in which Lincoln and Margo develop a stronger relationship with their stepdaughter than her biological parents. Their situation is far from ideal, and it’s difficult to watch them thrust into their respective positions, where Lincoln must figure out what to do with Maisie while he works nights bartending and Margo struggles to cope with being abandoned by her husband in the same manner that he abandoned Maisie. It’s just as affirming to see the two non-parents spring into affectionate action as it is disheartening to see Susanna and Beale neglect Maisie.

At the heart of everything is Maisie herself, played by newcomer Onata Aprile, who responds extraordinarily capably to the challenge of such a demanding and mature role. The adults in her life as strongly-portrayed as well, with Moore and Coogan turning in particularly harsh and troublingly realistic performances as disinterested and unsuitable petty parents, and Skarsgard and Vanderham more optimistic portraits of kinder souls. This is an honest, real film that captures the brutal emotions of a splintered family and the minimal efforts being made to put it back together without excessive glamorization.


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