‘What Maisie Knew’: Too much, too young

April 30, 2013

Adapted and extrapolated from Henry James’ novel of the same name, “What Maisie Knew” is a film that puts the audience right in the title character’s world – and forces it to experience it the way she does.

In this case, Maisie is a 7-year-old girl (played by the dazzling Onata Aprile), the daughter of a rock singer named Susanna (Julianne Moore) and a businessman of some sort named Beale (Steve Coogan). It’s immediately apparent that her parents aren’t getting along – but not because we see them clashing.

Rather, we experience their relationship indirectly – indeed, we experience the entire world indirectly – through young Maisie’s eyes and ears. So, when she’s in the other room playing, you can hear the barely controlled voices of her parents arguing in the next room. As she’s trying to fall asleep at night, she (and we) can hear her parents shouting at each other through the closed door and the next thing Maisie knows, there’s a man there changing the locks on the front door.

Beale has been kicked out – but he quickly finds a posh bachelor’s bad – and then settles in by marrying Maisie’s nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham). But Beale is always traveling, so Maisie’s world revolves around Margo – at least until it’s Susanna’s turn for custody.

Susanna, however, is also preoccupied, with her career and herself. So she sends her new boyfriend, the easy-going Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), to fetch Maisie from school. Then she leaves him to care for her when her band hits the road. Indeed, she quickly marries Lincoln – tit for tat, perhaps, for Margo, but also as built-in childcare.

Before long, Maisie is the ward of Lincoln and Margo, neither of whom are her actual parents. Her real parents drop in from time to time, tussling for her affections, checking in to make sure she loves them best. It’s like a competition for possession of a toy – except that, while the parents occasionally retire from the game, the toy is human, has feelings and can’t understand why neither of her parents seems to fight harder for her time.

That’s one of the beauties of this film by David Siegel and Scott McGehee. They stick to Maisie’s point-of-view, which is the most clear-eyed in the story. Young Aprile is both wonderfully childlike and preternaturally reserved. Her Maisie never takes sides and politely deflects efforts at being manipulated. There’s not much she can do except stay as interior as possible, a place where no one is messing with her emotions. She sees all; how much she understands is probably shocking, how much she absorbs a source of sad speculation for any compassionate viewer.

The film lives and breathes with Aprile’s performance. She has a wonderful watchfulness – and Moore and Coogan both give off that unhappy vibe of someone who is aware that they are being seen for who they really are, even as they try to present a more acceptable version of themselves. They can’t hide from their own child, who seems too hip to all of their tricks and tics.

“What Maisie Knew” is an incredibly disciplined film, one that sticks with Maisie and lets her guide the viewer through the story. That story is full of heartbreak – yet Maisie herself comes across as a survivor, someone who, hopefully, is learning from her parents in order not to make their mistakes when she gets older.

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