Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel haven’t made all that many films, and the last one to play locally was the estimable Bee Season in 2005. Their latest film What Maisie Knew is less immediately appealing than either Bee Season, or their earlier The Deep End, which isn’t to say that it’s not good, but that it’s simply a very different proposition. Based on the 1897 Henry James novel of the same name, the film updates and moves the action of its source, but follows its basic story with surprising faithfulness — at least up to a significantly altered (and softened) ending. Like the book, the film details the story of a little girl, Maisie (Onata Aprile), who becomes the object of contention between her divorcing parents. In truth, neither her aging rock diva mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), nor her condescending art dealer father, Beale (Steve Coogan), seem to particularly want Maisie — she’s just a good weapon to use against each other. If that doesn’t sound like the most cheerful story you’ve ever encountered, that’s because it isn’t. But then that isn’t the film’s point.
What Maisie Knew is an unsparing look at the impact of divorce on a child, but as the title implies, it’s more than that. It doesn’t take long before we realize that her parents are both completely self-centered and unlikable in the extreme. (Susanna is, in fact, easily the most unpleasant character Julianne Moore has ever played — and this isn’t really changed by her self-realization near the end of the picture.) The question becomes more one of what Maisie understands about the things that are happening — from her parents’ screaming matches to their all-too-hasty second marriages to much younger partners (mostly for purposes of custody leverage). While the film doesn’t ever tell us, it suggests much through the carefully controlled performance of Onata Aprile in the title role. Whether controlled by the filmmakers or the young actress, I can’t say, but it comes across as an internalized performance that leaves much to the viewer’s perception of what Maisie is thinking.
While the film is fairly harsh stuff, it offers some solace in the characters of Susanna’s new husband, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), and Beale’s new wife — and Maisie’s former governess — Margo (TV actress Joanna Vanderham). They afford a sense of actually caring about Maisie. Lincoln, in particular, truly bonds with the child — and ironically, the two step-parents end up bonding with each other. The pair not only provide Maisie with some much needed humanity, but also the film. Without them, What Maisie Knew would be close to unwatchable. As it is — and even with an ending that offers a measure of unconvincing optimism — this is a movie that’s much easier to admire than to actually enjoy, no matter how well done or acted. Rated R for some language.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre