A film about the best interests of the child is one of the most gripping of the summer. WHAT MAISIE KNEW is an impeccably acted, occasionally shocking but always involving tale of Maisie (Onata Aprile) the daughter of two incompatible parents, neither of whom has the requisite heart, patience and commitment to raise a child.
It is based on an eighteen year old script written by Carroll Cartwright, whose last credit was WHERE THE HEART IS (2000), one of Paul Newman’s final films, and Nancy Doyne, who had scripted episodes of TALES OF THE DARKSIDE and TALES OF THE CRYPT TV series.
The source material is Henry James 1897 novel. The directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (SUTURE, THE DEEP END and BEE SEASON) found Cartwright and Doyne’s unproduced script and updated it to contemporary New York to make an utterly seamless literary adaptation.
When we first see Maisie (Onata Aprile), she is creeping into her mother’s bed. She wants mom Susanna (Julianne Moore) to read her a story. A rock star whose best years are perhaps behind her, Susanna does not deal in stories – as we learn in life, she tends to bring her own to startling halts – but she can sing a few lines of ‘Rock A Bye Baby’. It is clear that she loves her daughter but she also regards her as a thing, like her guitar, to be picked up and put down ready for future use.
Maisie’s art dealer father Beale (Steve Coogan) isn’t much better. He chases new buyers, is always on the phone and can never make any guarantees. What becomes clear is that when you are essentially self-employed with a high maintenance New York lifestyle – Susanna has a great apartment with a recording studio – you spend a lot of your energy chasing opportunities, and avoiding law suits.
Susanna and Beale are in the death throes of their relationship – every conversation involves raised voice, interrupting one another – point-scoring on a grand scale, until Susanna locks Beale out. Because of her flighty behaviour and perhaps drink, though this is never clear – Susanna is like an alcoholic without a glass in her hand – Beale gets custody. He even marries the nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham from TV’s THE PARADISE). He dangles the possibility of a boat trip around the Italian coast to both Margo and Maisie, but (typically) does not follow through. The film is structured around awkward partings by adults for whom Maisie gets in the way; never more heartbreaking and cruel when Susanna dumps Maisie at a restaurant where she may – or may not – be cared for by her new bartender husband, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). ‘I want to see you walk inside,’ Susanna tells her just to ease her conscience that she has not abandoned her only daughter on some street corner.
The film is a collection of awkward meetings – Lincoln turning up at school to collect Maisie for the first time – and strained goodbyes – Margo leaving Maisie behind as she takes a taxi to her honeymoon. You feel for the child as she accepts the changes in her life without ever demanding stability. There are also awkward sleepovers. Maisie has a friend over, Zoe, but when the two stroll through a dark room full of self-absorbed adults at night, lounging around a chilled-out Susanna, you feel her terror. ‘Don’t talk to strangers?’ Eek, this room is full of them.
Inevitably, with unreliable partners in common, Margo and Lincoln are drawn together. But even their first meeting alone involves an awkward transaction involving Maisie. Lincoln has to go to work and cannot take Maisie with him; Margo is locked out of the apartment because Beale did not put her name on the lease.
Perhaps the best scene is an extraordinary one when Susanna stops Margo and Lincoln in the street and just takes Maisie – ‘what are you doing with my child’. Maternal entitlement trumps a caring environment, even though with her carers, Maisie gets a baby turtle. Susanna’s tour bus comes into Maisie’s life like a big, roaring monster, though it is only we, not Maisie, who sees it like that.
Because Maisie never makes tearful demands, the film is never sentimental. All the characters are likeable but with raw edges. Steve Coogan is not known for subtle performances but is a much more convincing unreliable father here than he ever was in THE LOOK OF LOVE. He has a great scene where he entertains the idea of Maisie coming to England with him then discounts it (‘it’s cold’). Coogan uses his natural sense of humour to make us warm to him, but his calculation is what distances him from people; he sees the potential problems without working through a solution, which is a pretty good summary of Beale’s character. Julianne Moore gives a brittle but partially sympathetic portrayal of Susanna (whom I’m sure is not based on Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles). Her problem is the lack of a long term strategy; tellingly we never see her manager.
The shocking moments come from Susanna turning on Lincoln, once when he is helping Maisie with a picture – she watches him through the recording booth then explodes), a second when Lincoln praises her story (‘it’s not a contest to make her f-king love you’). Susanna has real trust issues, perhaps rooted in her own selfishness; there’s no psychiatrist here either.
At the end of the film is a cruel truth: in parenting one always has to let go. In this story Maisie is too young for such a severing and yet... WHAT MAISIE KNEW is an utterly relatable film with non-quite-relatable central characters, but likeable supporting ones (Skarsgård and Vanderham turn on the charm) and the promise of a boat is fulfilled.
Reviewed at Hackney Picturehouse, East London, 11:00am, Sunday 11 August 2013