Movie review: What Maisie Knew

By Peter Calder

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The Henry James novel on which this film is based is, by all accounts, an angry attack on the irresponsibility of divorced parents who use their children as weapons against each other. It's a sadly and strikingly modern story - and it was written in 1897.

Directors McGehee and Siegel, working from a script by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, have underlined that timelessness with an intelligent and sensitive portrait of the toll that adult self-centredness can take on children.

The co-directors showed with the terrific 2001 Tilda Swinton thriller The Deep End their sure feel for the curdled nature of family dynamics and they nail it here, too.

Crucially, their film matches James' mastery of a then-novel narrative technique that explores the world from a single character's point of view. The novel isn't told in the first person, but from page one, in which Beale and Ida Farange are being divorced and Maisie is condemned to shuttle between them ("rebounding from racket to racket like a tennis ball or a shuttlecock", James wrote) it adopts a child's-eye view.

As the title suggests, this is a story of adults behaving like spoilt and petulant children, while the real child sees much more than she understands. Alive to that, the directors often place the camera at child height, so the world through which Maisie moves seems large, threatening and out of control.

The film relocates the story from London to Manhattan, but New York was never so unobtrusive as it is here. It's a story told in medium close-up as the emotions play across the characters' faces.

That 6-year-old world is filled by her parents Susanna (Moore) and Beale (Coogan): he's an art dealer and she's a rock star and they both stand, utterly unnerved, on the cusp of mid-life, which they deal with by taking lovers. Beale gets together with Margo (Vanderham), Maisie's erstwhile nanny; Susanna hooks up with a hunky bartender (Skarsgard) and because of the real parents' emotional inadequacy these reluctant step-parents find themselves taking more and more responsibility for Maisie.

The way things develop from here might have seemed a touch contrived if it were not for the heartfelt performances: Coogan and Moore, the latter brittle, angular and whiny, make much of their parts that might have been formulaic in less expert hands: they are not bad, just inadequate - but it is in the younger trio, and particularly the subtle and wide-eyed Aprile as Maisie, that the real magic happens. Recommended.

Stars: 4/5
Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Vanderham, Julianne Moore, Onata Aprile, Steve Coogan
Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Running time: 99 mins
Rating: M (offensive language)
Verdict: Intelligent, sensitive and splendidly acted

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