Review: What Maisie Knew (2013)

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Directed by – Scott McGehee & David Siegel
Written by – Carroll Cartwright & Nancy Doyne
Based on the novel of the same name by Henry James
Starring – Steve Coogan, Julianne Moore, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham & Alexander Skarsgård

There’s something about What Maisie Knew, the modern adaptation of Henry James’ novel by directors McGehee and Siegel (The Deep End), that felt distant and cold. I know that’s sort of the point but there’s an emotional void within the film that felt unintentional, almost as though the bleakness of Maisie’s life is as artificial as her parents’ own triviality. We’re constantly told and shown that Maisie’s parents are awful and that she deserves better but none of it feels real, rather it comes across as trite, contrived and unbearably heavy-handed.

The film tells the story of a young child – Maisie (Onata Aprile, in her first feature role) – who is passed from pillar to post to sidewalk as her parents battle through a bitter divorce. Much of the action is seen through the eyes of Maisie, so our view of events is honest but disjointed, and while this grants the film a unique perspective, the soap-opera style of writing and direction make it all but impossible to take seriously. Every single shift in the tale is as predictable as the next, and the insertion of implausible love triangles (or, in this film’s case, rectangles…) does a real disservice to the raw tale of a child who must suffer through no fault of her own.

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Where What Maisie Knew does succeed is in its portrayal of a marriage on the verge of a breakdown. We don’t get much of an insight into why Maisie’s parents are fighting (which helps place us firmly in the same shoes as Maisie herself) but we do get a stark – albeit reductively so – insight into the consequences of such a breakdown on the innocent party. Alas, Maisie’s parents are so stereotypically selfish and rotten that their fights become as laughable as the notion that Julianne Moore (Don Jon, Children of Men) – would ever marry Steve Coogan (Philomena, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) in the first place…

Let me explain; as the film progresses, both of Maisie’s parents start new relationships purely to get one over on each other. They fight tooth and nail to gain custody of Maisie, only to then abandon her without a moment’s notice to pursue their careers, and they both act as though their daughter can look after herself whenever they can’t be arsed to give her attention. It’s a bit like Kramer vs. Kramer, albeit without that film’s wit, heart or subtlety. Worse still, the portrayal of both of these parents is drenched in a horrible realism which is then completely undermined by tame, lifeless direction and a Lifetime-esque script that not even the talents of Moore and Coogan can salvage. There’s no respite for the audience as the writer perverts James’ novel almost beyond recognition to hammer home just how atrocious these two parents are, resulting in a film that is somehow both tame yet occasionally distressing.

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That’s not to say, however, that What Maisie Knew is a total write-off. For starters, Aprile is brilliant as Maisie. She exudes a childish innocence, yet she also displays a deep understanding of how traumatic a parental break-up can be on a child. We spend much of the film in her company, yet her presence never becomes tiresome or overbearing as, of all the characters in the film, she is the only one for whom we are able to spark up any form of empathy. There’s a manipulative streak to the way in which her story is told that can be quite grating but Aprile carries the film with such effortless charm that it’s tough not to feel for her character’s plight. Similarly, though the general atmosphere of the film is limp and flabby, Moore and Coogan do their best with the material they’re given and Skarsgård; (Battleship, Melancholia) managed to win me over to his cause completely with his calm, naturalistic performance. Moore actually overplays it a bit at times but her moment of realisation towards the end is both believable and fitting, if not a tad unnecessary, and more than makes up for her more, shall we say, “OTT” moments.

For me, What Maisie Knew is an unrecognisable adaptation of James’ novel but it’s one that still has some merit. I think it’s a real shame that it never quite lives up to its promise to do something fresh or interesting, instead relying on worn clichés and familiar soap-opera tropes to tell its story. Occasionally it threatens to do something new, perhaps even daring, but it always backs down because it is so restricted by its own lack of individuality. The constant to-ing and fro-ing between parents, carers, nannies and lovers becomes repetitive to the point of tedium and it’s only when the film focuses on Maisie when she’s at her most vulnerable that it ever becomes truly interesting.

What Maisie Knew is worth a watch if only for Aprile’s fantastic performance. It’s not a bad film per se, it’s just one in which the performers are wasted on an adaptation that is, all things considered, a little bit lousy.