'Maisie': Child's-eye view of divorce is sad, stirring
05:00 AM, May 23, 2013
Six-year-old Maisie has parents too busy viciously fighting with each other to realize what an amazing little girl they have.
And she’s too quietly watchful to seem bereft.
But we feel her aching sadness.
Young Onata Aprile gives a startlingly natural, understated and poignant performance as sweet-natured Maisie in the wonderfully captivating, splendidly acted What Maisie Knew (* * * * out of four; rated R; expanding Friday nationwide).
Maisie’s the casualty in her narcissistic parents’ lethal emotional warfare. Their fighting leads to divorce and a nasty custody battle. Too self-absorbed to handle the care of little Maisie, they mostly just want to inflict pain on each other.
In the midst of her life’s turmoil, Maisie clings to any kindness shown her by caring adults. She somehow manages to navigate through force of will, innate intelligence and childlike innocence.
The beautifully rendered film is told from Maisie’s point of view, a wise decision by deft directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (who made 2001’s brilliant film noir The Deep End) Screenwriters Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne have superbly adapted Henry James’ 1897 novel, moving the location from Victorian England to contemporary New York.
The camera is often at Maisie’s eye level, emphasizing how adults are seen by the perceptive Maisie. The sad-eyed Aprile’s honest portrayal is heart-wrenching.
When the movie opens we hear the sounds of Maisie’s mom Susanna (Julianne Moore) , an aging rocker, and her businessman husband Beale (Steve Coogan) brutally ripping into each other, as Maisie hears it from her bedroom. So, it’s no surprise when they split up.
Frequently left to her own devices, Maisie relies all the more on her kind nanny (Joanna Vanderham), whom her father decides impulsively to marry.
In retaliation, Susanna marries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a charming bartender.
Maisie’s tale is brilliantly nuanced. It’s not always comfortable to sit through the tidal waves of family misery and witness a little girl’s quiet pain, but here, the experience is profoundly moving.
Both Susanna and Beale make halfhearted stabs to connect with their daughter, but their erratic and manipulative behavior is off-putting to their honest little girl.
Susanna is almost monstrous in her irresponsibility. But, as played by the always-terrific Moore, she has a moment of self-awareness that, while it doesn’t redeem her, at least gives her a jot of humanity.
The viewer constantly fears for Maisie’s safety. Susanna leaves her at an upscale Manhattan bar with Lincoln, who initially seems too immature to be a caretaker. Still, in his sweet naivete he connects with his wide-eyed step-child in some of the film’s best scenes.
We watch him step up to the plate, as he realizes how precious Maisie’s fragile trust is. When Susana breaks up with him, he seems indifferent to the loss of her intermittent affection.
Yet he does care about what will become of Maisie. “You don’t deserve her,” he lashes out, articulating exactly what the viewer has been thinking.
Skarsgard gives a finely tuned and tender performance, and Vanderham is also terrific as the two adults who try to keep Maisie’s world from crumbling around her.
Who would have thought that one of the most provocative and affecting films made about the fallout from 21st century divorce would have emanated from a 19th century novel?