What Maisie Knew


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"Directed with wit and panache by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, written by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne, Maisie stays true to Henry James's two-part essence."

What Maisie Knew moves Maisie (a fantastic Onata Aprile) and her family to truly sensational residences in present day New York, with a rock-star mother played with rock-star style by Julianne Moore and an art dealer father portrayed by Steve Coogan, effectively glib, anaemically funny, tempting you to detest him in a different way. Directed with wit and panache by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, written by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne, Maisie stays true to Henry James's two-part essence.

On November 12, 1892, Henry James wrote in his notebook about a dinner, during which he heard an intriguing story: "A child (boy or girl would do, but I see a girl…) was divided by its parents in consequence of their being divorced. The court, for some reason, didn't as it might have done, give the child exclusively to either parent, but decreed that it was to spend its time equally with each." Five years later, the resulting novel was called What Maisie Knew, because, said James: "Everything takes place [in front of] Maisie. This is a part of the essence of the thing - that, with the tenderness she inspires, the rest of the essence, the second of the golden threads of my form."

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The custody battle is seen exclusively through Maisie's eyes and overheard through walls with her fox-like ears.

As Susanna, Moore entices her little girl with a Rock-a-bye Baby lullaby that is both alluring and utterly disconnected. Susanna in a short skirt with a leopard coat and the pale ankle boots mirrors what her little daughter is wearing - a singular subtlety of costume design that explains the inner turmoil of the relationship through their "matching" outfits that are so right for both of them. Short skirts, long legs and boots are good to make seven-mile steps.

Hansel and Gretel overhear their parents plotting to get rid of them in the next room. Maisie hears her parents fight and scream at each other, each night, only she has no brother, and has to figure things out by herself, more like Little Red Riding Hood. The movie later shows a feisty version of the fairy tale heroine, who beats up the wolf in a puppet theatre performance in Central Park.

Coogan plays Maisie's father Beale with muted changes on his face when he realises how deceptive he is to his child. It is some of Coogan's best film work. His facade remains a socially acceptable grimace while slowly the mirror of his daughter's face becomes unbearable. "There's no mommy in England - there's a whole ocean… " he breaks off and the worthlessness of all his interactions wash over him.

Maisie is not one of the precious little Hollywood puppets, the decorative children, spewing wisdom in self-consciously cute reaction shots. Maisie plays like a six-year-old plays, running around the house with her little girlfriend while the adults are having a party. The homemade crowns and fluttering fairy wing fabric are fun at first for her friend Zoe (Sadie Rae), but soon the sleepover goes awry. Zoe cries and cannot even endure one night in a house filled with strangers, drinking and smoking, which is normal for Maisie. Zoe's mom, who picks her up, is called "a total Nazi" by Susanna and that seems to be the end of the sleepovers.

This is a big deal for a little person, and McGehee and Siegel manage to make it a big deal for an adult audience as well. Realisations that what you considered matter-of-fact, make your friends cry, should rightfully be a big deal at any age.

The toys, many of them hand-painted animals, with a focus on horses, are shown in close-up because they are important to the child. We are with Maisie, all the way.

The costumes (by Stacy Battat) are inspired, everything looks terrific on Aprile. Her toys, as well as her clothes are carefully selected and timeless, with a hint of 70s aesthetic.

The title character in Valérie Massadian's Nana (2011) has a similar truth in dealing with the present, although this four-year-old girl's existence, living in an isolated hut in the forest with her mother couldn't be more different from Maisie's shuttling between two Manhattan dream apartments.

Eight-year-old Ana Torrent in Carlos Saura's Cría cuervos (1976), who invented her own choreography dancing to a pop song, is still the gold standard of children on film. Aprile is nipping at her heels.

The motive of turtles, on a flat screen TV, is the first sign that we are in the 21st century. Time structures are the greatest departure from Henry James. The time she spends with each parent is a matter of days, not months. A visit to Turtle Pond in Central Park and a turtle purchase in Chinatown stand in for the dragon of maturity

Alexander Skarsgård plays the mother's new husband, Lincoln, and he is magical with the little girl. Their first adventure together is crossing a busy street and Maisie wordlessly instructs him on how that is done responsibly with a six-year-old. "I married him for you," says her mother, as Moore's face reflects from one split second to the next, deceit, fear, and comfort. Jealousy is her most outstanding banner, with terrible emotional consequences for her child. The first street crossing is a long way from "playing spider monkey" during a stroll on the High Line.

Lincoln, the bartender, is able to learn and seems to sincerely care for Maisie. Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the former babysitter and now Maisie's father's wife asks her "You really like Lincoln?" "I love him," is her totally believable answer.

Maisie's mother's tour bus rolls in like yet another dragon, ready to swallow all predictability. Who said that children are inherently conservative? They like order and structure and who can blame them?

Henry James anguished to get his Maisie right. In a recent conversation with Holy Motors director Leos Carax's, he called a moment from James's Portrait of a Lady, "the most beautiful scene ever written".

Holy Motors and What Maisie Knew are proof that the genius of Henry James lives on and does not have to be limited to costume drama.

In Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, the fervently anticipated journey of the title never takes place. What Maisie Knew hinges on how expectations of stability form what we may become.

A walk on the beach, a game of monopoly, a promise fulfilled, these are the kinds of memories that we all carry with us, entrapped in a glass heart, the one only parents are able to shatter.

Reviewed on: 02 May 2013
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What Maisie Knew packshot
A divorce and custody battle from the perspective of a young girl.
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Director: Scott McGehee, David Siegel

Writer: Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright, Henry James

Starring: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham, Steve Coogan, Sadie Rae, Jesse Stone Spadaccini, Diana García, Amelia Campbell, Maddie Corman, Paddy Croft, Trevor Long, Emma Holzer, Nadia Gan, Samantha Buck

Year: 2012

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


EIFF 2013

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