19 August 2013

McGehee and Siegel’s ‘What Maisie Knew’

I was lucky enough to see an early screening of this captivating film. Whether Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s version of What Maisie Knew should be described as “based upon”, as opposed to “inspired by”, Henry James’s novel is something for those whose opinions on literary matters are weightier than mine.

Maisie is a seven-year old child in Manhattan with a rock star mother (Julianne Moore) and an art dealer father (Steve Coogan) whose marriage is falling apart. Unlike the audience, she is too young to realise the contrast between the affluence they lavish on her and their selfish neglect. Nor does she fully understand her good luck in the form of the two carers (Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham) her parents light upon and unintentionally bring together. Maisie’s mother finally shows signs of realising her own limitations and what might be best for her daughter, which is more than can be said for the father. All five of the main parts are well-played, particularly Onata Aprile’s Maisie. Disconcertingly the trailer for Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa preceded this particular screening of What Maisie Knew. Hardly Coogan’s fault, but the juxtaposition undermined the relative subtlety of his performance as Maisie’s father.

What Maisie Knew held my attention more thoroughly than most films: once a parent, always a parent, perhaps. Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright’s intelligent script is touching while avoiding cute sentimentality, yielding a film which for some divorced parents may be uncomfortable viewing , possibly enough to undermine the objectivity of a few of the UK reviews later this week. In the longer term, it seems a doubtful Oscar candidate, likely to trouble consciences of some in Hollywood while not being schmaltzy enough for others, but I hope to be proved wrong.

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