'''What Maisie Knew (M)
Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard
DIRECTOR SCOTT MCGEHEE AND DAVID SIEGEL
REVIEW PIER LEACH'''
You’ll like this if you liked: The Squid and the Whale, The Kids Are Alright, Sister, Kramer vs. Kramer, Mommie Dearest
The gaping chasm between one child’s material needs, which are more than met, and her emotional ones, which are not, is at the lonely heart of What Maisie Knew, a wrenching and insightfully observed drama from directing partners Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End).
That the film is adapted from an 1897 novel by Henry James to contemporary New York is striking for its continuing relevance: the needs of children change very little, and conversely, selfish parents are not just a byproduct of busy contemporary life. They’ve always existed, and despite the prevalence these days of that other extreme, the hovering helicopter parent, they probably always will.
Whereas parental neglect in film is often directly related to socioeconomic strain (The Blind Side, Precious), its manifestation in the moneyed Manhattan milieu of What Maisie Knew is subtler and cumulatively more horrifying.
The title character (Onata Aprile, in a wonderfully delicate and restrained performance) is just six years old when her art dealer father Beale (Steve Coogan) and rock-star mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) finally break up.
The separation occurs near the beginning of the film, but it’s clear from the outset Maisie and her lovely nanny Margo (newcomer Joanna Vanderham) are well accustomed to the passionate arguments that play out in the background as they amuse themselves with all the largesse money can buy.
It comes as something of a surprise is when Beale takes lovely nanny Margo (newcomer Joanna Vanderham) with him and they set up a beautifully appointed alternate home for Maisie (production design by the director’s sister Kelly McGehee is exquisite), and hastily get married.
At first it tips the scales in Beale’s favour. But Before long, and scarcely after Susanna marries attractive young bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) in a swift, thinly veiled retaliation, it becomes clear Maisie isn’t the only pawn in the custodial battle — a battle that’s far less about the child involved than about winning.
Working from a script by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, McGehee and Siegel artfully chart the swirling resentment an spiteful game playing as Beale and Susanna carelessly yo-yo Maisie between houses and leave their far more caring respective partners to pick up the astonishing slack.
Through it all, what is so quietly compelling is observing Maisie’s ability to adjust, absorb, and calmly adapt. The harm is clear; she’s a resourceful child out of necessity.
Astutely, the film eschews sentimentality in favour of more complex emotions, and owes a great deal of its success to all five central performances.
Aprile is a real find, conveying what Maisie knew in an understated, even performance and striking a tender rapport with both Vanderham and Skarsgard.
Moore’s Susanna is fearsome to behold in all her leaky anger and staggering narcissism. And yet she still conveys moments of insight in which you can feel pity and even compassion for her monumental failings as a mother — as does Coogan, momentarily, as Beale.