Thursday, May 02, 2013

“What Maisie Knew” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “What Maisie Knew”, starring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan.


When a divorced couple battle over custody of their daughter, what impact will it have on their child?


Susanna (Moore) and Beale (Coogan) are nearing the end of their marriage – a fact not lost on their seven year old daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile), who overhears their incessant bickering. When the court decides that primary custody will go to Beale, he brings along Margo (Joanna Vanderham), their live-in Nanny, to care for Maisie when he’s at work so Maisie will have some degree of consistency in her life amidst so many extreme changes. Soon, however, Beale’s business relationship with Margo turns personal and they wind up falling in love with each other, culminating in marriage.

Grass is not growing beneath Susanna’s feet, however, as she also marries – in this case, her bartender boyfriend Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), who quickly gets pulled into this tug of war with Maisie. While both parents started out wanting to be Maisie’s primary caregiver, she eventually turns into an inconvenient hot potato that neither parent wishes to hold. As a musician, Susanna is constantly touring around the country by bus in order to play paid gigs. Beale, for his part, began with a more stable lifestyle, but soon his own work requires him to do considerably more business-related traveling.

When things start to fall apart between both parents and their new partners, complications develop with respect to Maisie’s care. It turns out that both Lincoln and Margo have bonded with Maisie more than her real parents have; furthermore, they appear to be more interested in the child’s well-being than either Susanna or Beale. Inevitably, things slip through the cracks given everyone’s conflicting schedules and Susanna drops off Maisie at Lincoln’s bar, not knowing he isn’t scheduled to work there on that evening. Eventually, Maisie winds up in the care of Margo, who by now has been abandoned by Beale. Thereafter, Lincoln shows up and joins Margo as surrogate parents for Maisie. But when Susanna surprises the three of them by springing up mid-tour to try to drag her daughter with her on the road, will she succeed?


Set in New York City, “What Maisie Knew” is a modernized film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Henry James. While I’ve never read any of James’ work, I have seen some of their motion picture adaptations – usually in this movie class. Generally speaking, most professional film critics seem to have been uniformly underwhelmed by those versions and were resigned to believing that James’ work was unable to be translated to the big screen. “What Maisie Knew” might just prove to be the exception.

The story is told from the perspective of Maisie herself and Onata Aprile, the young actress playing that role, does a spectacular job. In order for this movie to work, we have to believe that Maisie has the intelligence, sensitivity and maturity to get through everything that life seems to be throwing her way. Thanks in no small part to this little girl’s acting skills, viewers should have no problem doing so. The keys to this film’s success is the choice that was made by the filmmakers to tell the story from Maisie’s point of view and the acting choices made by Onata Aprile so that an audience will buy the fact that her character of Maisie is both smarter and more grown-up than either of her biological parents.

From the outset of the movie, I was curious about its title and immediately wanted to learn what it meant. Did this child have the goods on someone? One of the benefits of my movie class is the group discussion that occurs after each film, and this one was particularly helpful because it forced me to derive my own understanding of the title’s meaning. For me, what Maisie knew was how to adapt, survive and know what things she needed in life and how to go about obtaining them. She knew courage and she knew maturity – maturity and abandonment are, I believe, the central themes of the motion picture. As difficult as it may be to watch at times, I highly recommend that you see “What Maisie Knew” with friends and afterwards, ask them their interpretation of the title. They will likely have unique answers because each individual can personalize this movie in whatever manner they please – and that endlessly enriches the enjoyment of “What Maisie Knew”.



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