What Maisie Knew
Directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel
Onata Aprile – Maisie, 7 years old
Julianne Moore – Susanna, the rock star mother of Maisie
Steve Coogan – Beale, Maisie’s dad, an art dealer
Joanna Vanderham – Margo, nanny to Maisie at the start
Alexander Skarsgard – Lincoln, bartender boyfriend of Susanna
No one else matters much!
It’s based on an unusually concise Henry James novel from 1897. Based on? Yes, it’s rather closer than “inspired by” though there’s a different ending, and a major character in the James novel (the elderly governess) gets relegated to a two minute but very funny cameo, and basically her character gets combined with the “young pretty governess” Margo. Henry James is an author I find tedious, but some of his stories have adapted surprisingly well to the screen, particularly The Turn of The Screw, and now in a very free adaptation, this one.
The warring wealthy couple who divorce in the original are updated to slightly over-the-hill rock star Susanna and her English husband, Beale. Susanna is truly scary in the film, getting more and more unlikeable by the moment. She also has to endure a camera exploring close in to already ageing skin and lines beneath the glamour. It’s an Oscar level performance.
Beale (Steve Coogan)
Coogan follows his performance as Paul Raymond the same year with another smooth-talking bastard: he really does play them so well. The direction style is close up on faces on all five main characters and they’re all brilliant. They divorce, and Beale (Coogan) starts, or more likely, continues, an affair with the young nanny, Margo.
Susanna (left) ignores Margo (right)
Susanna, between getting stoned at parties, picks up Lincoln, a bartender who first appears to be something of a stoner: appearances are deceptive. In the fight for custody, both Susanna and Beale decide to marry their new-found partners in an attempt to gain custody of Maisie, whom they have to share ten days at a time. Because both are “me, me, me” and neglectful, the onus for looking after Maisie falls increasingly onto Margo, and the young bartender, Lincoln. In the end, Maisie has to choose who to be with: rich mom, or impoverished Margo and Lincoln, who have ended up together. It stays with the basic storyline.
L to R: Margo, Lincoln and Maisie in the park.
Onata Aprile has to carry the whole story, seen through the eyes of a child, and she holds it all together. Her view is partial. We don’t get to see any scenes beyond her point of view and it’s directed to emphasize that. We only ever know what Maisie knew … hence we never discover when the Beale / Margo relationship started, though we can guess. When Lincoln first appears, being sent to collect her from school (having met her only once briefly) you think he’s suspicious or useless, but in fact he is a caring soul, and genuinely takes care of her. We grow to like him more and more as the film goes on.
Lincoln and Maisie
Margo is manipulated by the greasy Beale, but finds herself doing the same, having to take responsibility for Maisie. Margo is played by Joanna Vanderman, who was the lead role of the TV series The Runaway set in 60s and 70s Soho. She was fabulous in that, fabulous in this. The only mild query was her accent … at the beginning she seemed American, but had little to say, then I thought I heard Canadian, then Scottish, which must be her natural accent – she was born in Scotland. She was definitely cockney in The Runaway. It doesn’t detract a jot from her fine performance. She was only twenty when this was made, so nineteen during The Runaway, where she goes from around 15 to 30 in the progress of the series.
We summed up the film as ‘a little gem.’ It’s beautifully filmed, convincingly acted and full of tiny points. One we noticed is when Lincoln collects Maisie from school, never having had to look after a child, he starts to cross on DON’T WALK. She waits, he comes back and waits for WALK, and finds he’s expcted to take her hand. A subtle touch is when they’re on the crossing, on WALK, a cyclist rides straight between the people at speed … as they do.
There are dozens of tiny points on the elaborate child fashions she has, to the elaborate toys she is surrounded with. The message is uplifting. You can’t choose your family. Her parents are both swine, but there are people out there who will take responsibility and offer genuine love. Sounds like a weepie. it’s not at all, and what looks soppy on paper works a dream on the screen … due to the quality of direction, acting and a very well-written script in terms of dialogue.
Definitely it’s an ‘afternoon picture’ in 1940s terms, and it’s an antidote to all the megabucks action movies designed for early teen boys that dominate cinemas. I would see it having a long slow build on DVD.