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What Maisie Knew is a contemporary New York City revisioning of the Henry James novel by the same name. It revolves around unwitting 7-year-old Maisie, caught in the middle of a custody battle between her mother Susanna, an aging rock star, and her father, Beale, a major art dealer. Written by
Thoughtful, beautiful, amazingly constructed Henry James update
What Maisie Knew (2012)
A truly remarkable movie, filled with great acting, masterful editing and filming, and terrific writing. The basis of it all is the core here, a glimmering Henry James novel by the same title from over 100 years earlier. It's amazing how well the story holds up set in contemporary times, and changed in many necessary (and interesting) ways. What it keeps it going is the basic heartbreaking drama of a child tossed between two indifferent parents.
The mother might be seen as the main actor here, Julianne Moore, and this is the best I've ever seen her, I think. She gives a slightly fiery performance, and "slightly" is perfect, avoiding an overacting job suggested by her role as a slightly successful rock and roll star. She's terrifically awful and you come to hate her, appropriately.
The father (Steve Coogan) also puts in a sharp performance playing the lively, fun parent who is a selfish womanizer, hiding, sometimes, his flaws from his daughter. His relationship with the mother is not detailed very far because it is mostly one of distance and disdain. And mutual abuse.
The real star here is the girl, an utterly charming and beautifully effective actress, Onata, Aprile. She succeeds not by her delivery of great lines, but by her expressions. It's all because Henry James understood something delicate about children in these situations: they know what's going on and don't say it. And they also don't let it affect them because they simply can't afford to, or because they become hardened in some little ways, making them withdraw or act out. That Maisie maintains a delicious sweetness without playing the victim is quite remarkable, and Aprile is brilliant.
The secondary woman and man in the story are also terrific, and their roles grow as the movie grows. In fact, they become the sympathetic heart of things.
Pulling this together is the directing pair, McGehee and Siegel. This is their fifth movie together, and neither man has directed anything without the other. I've not seen any of the other four, but the reviews are middling to poor for all of them, so I'm not sure how far the novelty takes us. But it works here perfectly, making the complexity unfold quickly and coherently.
It's an ordinary drama on the surface, but let this one sink in over time. It's that good.
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