The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
What Maisie Knew

Reviewed by James Zborowski.

Director Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Length 93 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article What Maisie Knew takes the basic plot and some of the character names of Henry James’s 1897 novel, but places them in contemporary New York. We join the film’s world just as a marriage is coming to an end - between minor rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and struggling art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan). The pair are given joint custody of their six year old daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile), and the remainder of the film is constructed around what James, in his preface to the novel, refers to as ‘[t]he wretched infant[‘s...] rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis ball or a shuttlecock.’

The film looks exquisite, both in terms of composition and lighting, and of what is put in the frame. Set design and costumes, whilst never drawing attention to themselves, underline the taken-for-granted wealth of the Beale family, as do the steady stream of service people who facilitate their lives, starting with the pizza delivery guy at the very beginning of the story. (In fact, one of the most interesting features of the film is the way that - without wanting to reveal too much of the plot here - both of Maisie’s parents treat their post-divorce romantic relationships as extensions of service relationships.) We are also given a vivid sense of Maisie’s experience of moving across and between city spaces and homes. Maisie’s experience of and relation to objects is also a well-realised element of several arresting scenes, including one in which she quietly appraises the toys and furnishings of her new bedroom in her father’s apartment, and another in which she is dwarfed by a toy horse and guitar that her mother has given her but has not stayed around for long enough to help her carry back to her house. (A turtle also plays an important role across a series of scenes.)

The main cast is similarly engaging to watch. It is strange to hear Coogan adopting an American accent, but he delivers a brilliant thumbnail sketch of a man who knows how to grease social interactions but is not equipped or inclined to support the needs or desires of loved ones. Julianne Moore’s character is given the nastiest moments of egocentricity but these are offset (whether sufficiently is a matter for individual judgment) by moments where we are given insights into her difficulties, and/or in which she exhibits awareness of her parental shortcomings. The performances of each parent’s post-divorce lover, by Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham, are also very good, though Skarsgård is given much more to do than Vanderham.

The above features, along with the expert orchestration of meetings between various combinations of the five main characters in the film, combine to make What Maisie Knew a quality family melodrama. Less successful is the film’s construction of a ‘point of view’ on the story-world it shows. This is perhaps particularly worthy of comment in the case of a Henry James adaptation, and will be the subject of the Alternate Take.

This review was published on August 30, 2013.

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