What Judge Gordon Sullivan knew was a very short movie.
"A six-year-old's innocence, charm and generosity of spirit."
Henry James is one of the masters of the novel, creating a bridge between serialized novels that ruled much of the nineteenth century and the darker turn things would take after World War I (of which James did not live to see the end). He took a certain kind of psychological portrait to an extreme, showcasing what was possible within the form, an achievement that few novelists have been able to match. Though many of his best-known works were written before the cinematograph was invented, the latter half of his career existed in the shadow of the new machine, including classics like The Wings of the Dove and the shorter Turn of the Screw. It's not surprising, then, that this master of the novel would find his works frequently adapted for the screen even as his fans claimed that his achievements in psychological realism could not be adapted. What Maisie Knew attempts to take James into the twenty-first century, offering some memorable performances and affecting drama along the way.
Facts of the Case
What Maisie Knew is a child's-eye view of divorce. Young Maisie (Onata Aprile) is torn between her parents. One (Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights) is a former rock star who isn't capable of taking care of herself, let alone a daughter. The other (Steve Coogan, Night at the Museum) works so much that he hardly has time to acknowledge his daughter, let alone care for her. As the parents grow farther apart, we watch as Maisie copes with the chaos around her, finding solace in childlike places.
What Maisie Knew is perhaps the most prophetic of James' novels. Though we've long since abandoned the cultured world of Washington Square and The Ambassadors, the story of a young girl torn between ill-prepared parents who are in the midst of lashing out in a divorce is an all-too-common occurrence in 2013. Perhaps more importantly, James chose to tell his tale of bitter divorce entirely through the eyes of the child of these immature adults.
What Maisie Knew can't hope to give us the psychological insight of James' novel. His prose puts us in the middle of Maisie's thoughts, and the distance between what we know to be happening and what her inexperienced mind can articulate is what creates the rich portrait of the book. Thankfully, What Maisie Knew doesn't take the obvious route by giving us voiceover of Maisie's thoughts as she navigates the rocky shores of her parents' increasingly ugly action.
Instead, the film has two major strategies to replace James' interior insights. The first is a series of excellent performances from the cast, who really sell the psychological states of the characters. Julianne Moore brings her usual gravity to the aging rock star, playing up the spite with acid versatility. Steve Coogan has always excelled at playing someone unlikable, and here is no exception. There's a certain sadness to his workaholic character, and Coogan brings that pathos to bear effectively. Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham play Maisie's stepparents, and they're both sympathetic and a bit sad as well. In a perfect world, we get the sense that they'd be the best parents for Maisie.
The film's other strategy is also found in its cast: Onata Aprile as Maisie. Aprile does a fantastic job as a kind of audience surrogate, looking equal parts vulnerable and innocent as the world around her crumbles for reasons she can't know or understand. More importantly, perhaps, the film lets us linger on her. Though we don't get direct access to her interior, we do watch her face as the storm of her parents' breakup raging around her. She's the eye of the storm, and it's by watching her that we can measure the effect of the surrounding gale.
The film also gets a solid DVD release. The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is generally clear and bright. Colors are well saturated, with a slightly de-saturated look that's appropriate to the material. Black levels are fine, and no compression artefacts or digital problems crop up. The only minor drawback is a bit of speckling in a couple of shots. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track does a fine job with the material. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and since we stick with Maisie, we get some good directionality as the adults clash around her.
Extras start with a commentary featuring co-directors David Siegel and Scott McGhee. The pair is chatty and proud of their film. Their discussion runs the gamut from the source and inspiration for the film to stories from the set, as well as a number of post-production decisions. It's a pretty engaging listen that gives most of the background that viewers could want. We also get five deleted scenes that flesh out a few more interactions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course diehard fans of Henry James will find little to praise here. By wrenching the story into the twenty-first century and losing James' sterling prose, What Maisie Knew has already committed two unforgivable sins for the James aficionado. The fact that no film will really please a fan of James' novel is beside the point. As an adaptation, What Maisie Knew could probably just have retitled itself, and few would be the wiser.
What Maisie Knew is not a feel-good movie. It's a portrait of a justifiably disintegrating marriage; these are not great people and the way they treat each other is tragic. The fact that they have a daughter between them makes their behavior that much more reprehensible. However, I'm not sure we learn anything from this particular portrait of bad behavior. It's almost 100 minutes of lying in the muck of humanity with little more in the way of consolation than "children can be innocents." It's not a wholly depressing feature, but the excellent performances mask the fact that we know where this film is headed from the beginning and it's not a particularly fun trip.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
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