Director: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Starring: Onata Aprile, Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Vanderham
Written by: Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright and (based on the novella) Henry James
Running Time: 99 mins
Release date: 23rd August 2013
The more I go and see films to review, the more frustrating I am getting that utter dross and dire films are getting mass releases when the quality stuff is hidden away in small, independent cinemas, hardly making a mark on the box office. I say this because What Maisie Knew, a modern update of Henry James’ novella, is a poignant and heartbreaking piece of cinema, filled with outstanding performances and yet no one will get to see it because it won’t be on show at the multiplexes.
Maisie is a 7 year old girl caught up in the argumentative world of her parents; self absorbed rock chick, Susanna and British art dealer, Beale. Unable to live together, the pair start a bitter custody battle for the little girl, as Beale marries Maisie’s nanny, Margo and Susanna gets hitched to cocktail waiter, Lincoln. Bouncing from one house to another, Maisie, who has a connection with Margo, finds herself spending more time with Lincoln and so realising that the two substitute parents seem to be more caring than her own.
It could have been quite easy to have followed the morkish route of Kramer Vs Kramer. Instead the whole film is seen from the point of view of the young girl and so we immediately feel emotionally involved with the situation as she watches her world crumble without not fully understanding what is happening. It probably wouldn’t have worked if the directors hadn’t found a child actress so captivating, you wonder if she is actually acting.
This is a quietly played film that has moments of explosive verbal shocks but it is beautifully shot and carefully crafted that doesn’t need to rush through story, instead taking a pleasantly leisurely pace that never gets dull because we are investing in characters we care for. This is thanks to a nicely pitched script and five outstanding performances.
Steve Coogan, still relishing in the success of the hilarious Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, plays it straight in the smaller of the roles, as Maisie’s father, Beale, a man more comfortable talking on a phone and making a deal than communicating with his daughter. Julianne Moore, who is one of my favourite actresses, gets to play a role we don’t often see her in, as a totally arrogant and egomaniac mother who is more interested in her career as a singer than where her daughter is. In one heartbreaking moment, she casually abandons her daughter in the middle of the night at the restaurant Lincoln works, with no knowledge if he is there or not. It’s a powerhosue of nastiness and Moore is the perfect actress to bring it to the screen.
Then there’s the young step parents, who find themselves at the heart of Maisie’s world. Scottish actress Joanna Vanderham is not only beautiful but brings a level of vulnerability to her role of Margo, the young nanny who becomes involved with Beale, only to find herself as much as victim as Maisie. One of the big surprises is True Blood star Alexander Skarsgard. A terrifically subtle and understated performance as Lincoln, he is kind, caring and understanding and you can immediately see why Maisie is so taken by him. He should do far more films like this than waste his time with movies like Battleships.
Finally and how can you forget, Maisie. Played with so much charm and charisma by Onata Aprile. She is the glue that holds the whole thing together and she commands almost every scene. So enchanting is she, you honestly start asking if she is actually acting or if this is the most natural performance you have ever seen. She puts a lot of well seasoned performers to shame.
The ending is a little too convenient but that is a minor flaw in an otherwise touching and tragic tale of modern marriage and the casualties who have no control over the events. It’s a film full of heart, moments of pure joy and warmth and proof that the more money Hollywood put into films, the less interesting they become because this has far less than the budget of The Lone Ranger and yet is 100% more successful. Just a shame that only a few will get to witness such a wondrous piece of work. As well as the performance of the year.