Tuesday, April 30, 2013

McGehee & Siegel's WHAT MAISIE KNEW: Henry James gets a (mostly) deft updating

How different are the movies of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, The Deep End, Uncertainty) when they both write and direct a film than when (Bee Season and their latest effort WHAT MAISIE KNEW) they collaborate with other screenwriters! Gone is much of the oddness and the anything-but-straight-ahead momentum that distinguishes the pair, which is not to say that Bee Season and even more so What Maisie Knew are not worth seeing. They are (with Maisie especially so) but they are surprisingly mainstream in their intention and style. Consequently, the duo's latest might very well be its biggest hit. Which would be wonderful -- if it means that we'll be seeing their work more often.

McGehee and Siegel (shown above, with the latter on the left) and the screenwriters -- Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright -- have taken the famous novel of the same name by Henry James and turned it into a surprisingly relevant and timely look at parenting (and the lack of it) today. The original novel explored how two divorced spouses use their child to hurt each other at the kid's expense, and this update does the same. The specifics -- time, place, occupations, secondary characters and all the rest -- have been given almost exactly the right spin so that they move the plot along, while making everything seem absolutely au courant. James would be pleased, I suspect, and probably not at all surprised to see how very little (except the accouterments) has changed over an entire century, and beyond.

Behavior is key here, and all four filmmakers take care to put it on rich display -- with its subtext fully articulated, as well. These characters try to behave as if they understood what responsible adults act like, but their own desires continually take precedence over everything, and so they fail consistently. Maisie's mother (a brave and nasty performance played with flash and flair by Julianne Moore, shown at right) is a drug- and alcohol-addled rock star, while her father (equally nasty and played with unusual restraint by Steve Coogan, below) is sort of of art agent who lives, we soon find, too close to the edge.

These two want desperately to be thought of as model parents, but everything they do indicates (hell, screams!) that they should never have had a child. At times this movie seems like a plea to restrict irresponsible adults from ever being allowed to conceive. Their child, the titular Maisie, is brought to fine life by relative newcomer Onata Aprile. Ms Aprile (at left, above and below) is a find, and Maisie's a role that suits her almost ideally.

The film's other two important characters -- Maisie's governess/care-giver, Margo, and mom's new boy-fuck Lincoln -- initially impress us as shallow and out for their own best interests. But the screenplay and performances by the two actors who inhabit these roles (Joanna Vanderham, below and Alexander Skarsgård, above, right) slowly win us over as these characters grow and change so beautifully and movingly as the movie progresses.

What Maisie Knew is a heartbreaking film in many ways. It has been some time since I've seen a movie that gave us entry (and so well) into the child’s point of view. The directors (and, I am guessing, the screenwriters) put us so firmly in the place of this girl, who only slowly (and only as much as her young age can manage) understands what is happening and that, finally, she just might have some small command of her situation.

My one quibble -- but it's a big one: Why didn’t the writers and directors know enough to give this kid at least one moment of "brattiness"? (God knows, Maisie has plenty of reason to act out!) Having raised a daughter in New York City and now seeing my two grand-kids (around the same age as Maisie) and all their friends, I have to say that I have never seen a child who is this good all the time. The only way a child could be this good would be via some major repression -- which would certainly not lead toward any happy ending. It's surprising then, that between the directors and the screenwriters, someone didn't raise the point -- Hey, we need to make her just a little more real. As it is, Maisie has our full sympathy; she doesn’t need to be perfect. But by keeping her so cute and correct at every moment, the movie ends up by default sentimentalizing both Maisie and her circumstances.

What Maisie Knew is a very good film. But it might have been a great one. It opens this Friday, May 3, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center; and on May 17 in Los Angeles at The Landmark; and throughout the country in the weeks to follow.

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