WHAT MAISIE KNEW
3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars
While the content of each is vastly different, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and Henry James' "What Maisie Knew" are classic stories of tragic dysfunction percolating amongst society's well-to-do. Earlier this month, Australian Baz Luhrmann became the latest director to adapt "Gatsby" into a film and the fifth in as many tries to get it mostly wrong. He tried to mix an early 20th century mindset narrative with 21st century style, and all of it was a big mess.
Rather than set "Maisie" at the same time in the same location as the 1897 book (Victorian-era England), co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel -- working with a script by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright -- landed it smack in the middle of present-day New York. Apart from giving it a very different, far more poetic ending, the four filmmakers stick letter close to James' source material, thus proving timeless stories can take place anywhere during any era.
"Maisie" is going to remind a great many viewers of "Kramer vs. Kramer" as it features a wealthy New York couple using their child as a pawn during their messy divorce. While it was good in its own way, the melodramatic "Kramer" was told primarily from the perspective of the adults, both of whom were morally and spiritually ambiguous characters.
Although they get almost all of the dialogue, the four primary adult characters in "Maisie" are present solely for their collective dramatic support of the fully formed title character, played with stunning grace and shattering maturity by 6-year-old newcomer Onata Aprile.
Pretty and poised but never in a precious or exaggerated cinematic manner, Aprile achieves the near-impossible by delivering a throttling performance while saying next to nothing and rarely letting on to what her character is thinking. Maisie is precocious not by choice or innate talent, but because her parents force her to grow up faster than she should. No child should ever be put through what happens to Maisie in this movie. Any parent out there thinking about divorcing their spouse -- and maybe thinking about making a child a possible bone of contention -- needs to rethink his or her position and see this movie now.
It takes a rare breed of performer to agree to play the parents in this story, and it is to the immense credit of both Julianne Moore as wife Susanna and Steve Coogan as husband Beale to take on with such unwavering conviction two such patently unlikeable characters. She's a washed-up rocker attempting a comeback, and he's a bi-continental high-end art dealer. Although neither is quite ready to admit it, each is way past their personal and professional prime, both are two type-A's who don't hear the word "no" very often and are used to always getting their way.
We know from the get-go "Maisie" is going to be different when the opening scene -- a shouting match between the parents -- is faintly audible and takes place in another room. What they say or how loud it is means next to nothing to Maisie; she knows it's not friendly or loving, and based on her reaction it's something she's heard many times before.
The filmmakers get major bonus points for employing some well-executed narrative shorthand in this critical first act. They do not show the couple in flashback during happier times or beat a dead horse by including additional teeth-gnashing arguments. Everybody -- Maisie, especially -- gets the point. Before the end of the first half-hour, the divorce is final and each party has bitterly -- and strategically -- moved on.
This is the point at which two previously incidental characters take on much more weight. Two people not used to getting their own way, nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), get thrown into situations for which neither is at all prepared or wants. The filmmakers are certain we also understand neither Margo nor Lincoln is not without their own minor self-serving motives, which only increases the tension and the effect on Maisie.
Back to the ending.
Purists and fans of the James book could -- make that will -- likely have a big problem with the conclusion. A fifth principal adult character from the book is barely seen, and the filmmakers take huge artistic liberties with how it all wraps up. Some will see it as a sell-out, others as a form of karma or payback. But most -- those who know nothing of the book -- will find the final scenes monumentally moving and spiritually cleansing. What Maisie knew is no longer relevant; what she knows now is all that matters. (Millennium)
(Note: This is an emotionally intense, "R" rated drama with strong language and although the lead character is a child, it is strictly for adult or mature teen viewing only.)