Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My take on the movie: What Maisie Knew is an inspired adaptation.


Kudos to screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright for extracting the essential truth of Henry James' novel What Maisie Knew and implanting it in a thoroughly modern context. Released from the dreary schoolroom, hansom cabs and grey skies of Victorian era London, 'Maisie' feels fresh, new and right at home in Manhattan's upper west side, circa now.
The directors chat with Onata over a Shirley Temple
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel dismissed any need to be slavishly devoted to James' novel. As McGehee told Scriptlab;  "It’s really the spirit of the book that you need to preserve, not the plot points; not the character relationships even. You have to identity what it is that you love about the book and make sure you don’t lose that. It’s not a book report; you’re really trying to invent something brand new." They left the hard work to the screenwriters. Following James' lead, Doyne and Cartwright tell the story from Maisie's perspective; it took them years to get it right. Luckily the directors found a really remarkable young actress, Onata Aprile, to channel the character just as flawlessly.

Julianne Moore's character has a way with words
Julianne Moore, tatted over her freckles, plays Maisie's mother, Susanna (Ida in the novel); a self-involved rocker who loves her daughter but would rather party and bestow pricey presents like giant stuffed ponies and guitars, than be a parent. Maisie's dad, Beale, is an equally self-centered art dealer played by a younger-looking, skinnier Steve Coogan than I remember from The Trip. Don't miss Coogan in the poignant and funny Philomena with Dame Judi Dench.

Kelly McGehee nails the design concept for Susanna's Manhattan home
These two really despise each other; When Susanna locks Beale out of the apartment - an uber-cool and multi-leveled floor plan designed by production designer and McGehee's wife, Kelly McGehee - for one transgression too many, - the couple hurls F bombs at each other through the front door, the hatred escalating when he comes inside, while Maisie listens, pale and confused.

Maisie loves her daddy played by Steve Coogan
And so the battle for custody begins. Coogan catches the right cavalier note of those formerly charming 'boys will be boys' types, smirking at Maisie, making his daughter a confidant in his war against 'her' but young Maisie, like daughters everywhere, loves her daddy, despite his faults. The truth is he has no clue what to do with Maisie, no more than Susanna does.


Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and Maisie
Both would rather leave the actual care and feeding of the little girl to her nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham) while they pursue their more worldly and separate affairs. Ultimately - and all in an offscreen rush - Beale marries Margo, gaining a live-in babysitter for Maisie and a friend with benefits situation for himself. He treats her so thoughtlessly it's not surprising that she and Lincoln are thrown together.

Susanna /Julianne Moore + Lincoln /Alexander Skarsgard

In a desperate stab to hold onto her custody rights,  Susanna responds to Beale's marriage by taking up with the much younger, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), an awkward, overgrown puppy and hanger-on who Maisie quickly grows to adore. There's a slight turning in of the toes of Skarsgard's  Converse-clad feet that accentuates the gawky giant's sweet and uncomplicated nature. Helping Maisie open juice boxes, striding the High Line in Manhattan as Maisie dangles from his bicep, Lincoln comes off like a true manny who adores his tiny charge as much as she does him.



Alexander Skarsgard: "stepdad" or manny?

In the source material, Maisie is supposed to alternate from house to house every six months; the movie's more modern equivalent makes the proposition 10 days with mom, ten days with dad. In both instances, Maisie is likely to hear the equivalent of 'you take her - no you take her' while her parents and caretakers constantly leave her stranded.



At which point quite a few audience members might be heard to call out 'I'll take her'  'No I'll take her'; Onata Aprile is that luminous as Maisie. Onata doesn't do much really; she doesn't have to do a thing except be that hardest of things to be; natural, authentic, a real child. Clomping up and down the stairs in cowboy boots, starred leggings, assorted hats and crowns and an expensive nouveau hippie chic wardrobe that mirrors her mother's from costume designer Stacey Battat, Maisie is a soulful, watchful, utterly loveable little girl who steals this particular show. It's painful to see this impish pixie repeatedly let down, and put in sickening situations as the adults conduct themselves shamelessly.

Sarsgard + Onata Aprile color together

Credit to Ms. Moore for layering her own character so richly; in a telling scene Susanna is working on some vocals in the glass sound booth in her home studio, while Lincoln Susanna' sweet and awkward bartender boy-toy cum 'husband' hangs out listlessly and Maisie sits coloring. The more Lincoln is drawn to Maisie, engaging with her, helping her to color a tricky drawbridge, both of their faces lit up with happiness and oblivious for a few moments of Susanna and her constant needs; the more we see her face darken through the glass booth. She finally storms out and pulls Maisie into the booth with her; so jealous is she, so unused to sharing the spotlight. Selfish to be sure, but still a mother; Susanna's maternal instincts do kick in a dreadful  moment when she sees fear on Maisie's face for the first time.


Julianne Moore is heart-wrenching as Maisie's extreme
slacker mom

"Are you afraid of me?" Moore almost wails, the cry a threat in itself somehow. It's her most dramatic moment of the film; her face crumbling as she sees herself through Maisie's young eyes.

Even when they've let her down the most, Maisie still responds to the sound of her parents' voices by running and jumping into their arms, calling out mommy mommy, daddy daddy. She will always love them; they're her parents, it's in the nature of children to love their parents - even when their parents are abusive or negligent.  By the movie's end, Maisie has learned someone is supposed to be looking after her. And that that somebody may just have to be Maisie herself.

What Maisie Knew is an emotionally moving story that is as vital and alive as ever thanks to an inspired script, directors who weren't afraid to let a little child lead them, strong performances on every level and along with skilled, modern, costume and production design, a solid score from Nick Urata.


Link to music from What Maisie Knew here.  Read my take on the book here 
                                         
And enjoy the trailer here -



2 comments:

  1. Glad you like the movie. I don't think it'll come here to my City any time soon. But that's one on my TBW list, and hopefully, I can read the book before I watch the 'modern' (or is it 'postmodern') variation.

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    Replies
    1. So strange! I replied to this already and somehow deleted my own comment. Anyway Arti, I hope it does too; I'm sure you'll enjoy it. I would say it's definitely modern; a reimagining of James' material- I also think you will appreciate the book more than I did. Let me know how it goes.

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