By Laurie Coker
I’ve said in again and again. A perfectly preformed character-driven film trumps most other films. Rich, well-imagined characters are what make What Maisie Knew a beautiful film. While I am familiar with author Henry James, I knew nothing about the movie before seeing it, except that I had seen a movie by directing team David Siegal and Scott McGehee before, one that both moved and shocked me. What Maisie Knew, however, in part because they masterfully give us a story quite literally from the point of view of their title character, stirred my emotions and completely engaged me.
Maise (Onata Aprile) lives with her father (Scott Coogan) and mother (Julianne Moore), an unmarried couple completely at odds. Her mother, Susanne, plays hardcore music and exemplifies many of the negative attributes associated with such a career, but she seems to truly love her child. Beale, her father, appears to be just the opposite – a serious business man with a busy career and as such we wonder how they every coupled – was Maisie an “accident?” And there is Margo (Johanna Vanderham), her nanny, a pretty young woman, who simply adores Maisie and who does most everything with and for her. When Beale and Susanne split, as they should, Maisie’s life changes in ways both troubling and settling. Susanne marries, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), as a custody ploy, after Beale marries Margo, and Maisie’s live takes some extremely unexpected turns.
Simply put, perspective makes What Maisie Knew so wonderfully engaging. Siegel and McGehee, who I spoke to over tea (and sparkling water), told me that seeing things through Maisie’s eyes was tantamount to their telling. Each shot in the film shows us life through her eyes, without ever losing the overall perception of the story’s other characters and it’s theme.
Actress Onata Aprile, a slight six-year-old with doe-like eyes, could not be more perfectly cast. Siegel and McGehee, to my surprise, said they did not find their ideal little star, until a month before production began, and casting director Avy Kafman auditioned hundreds of girls. Aprile, whose mother, the directors told me, is an actress herself, can emote exceptionally, with little more than her eyes, making it so easy to engage in her emotional journey. And, I am told, she brought joy to the set, making her co-stars, especially Skarsgård , fall in love.
Maisie is spirited and wholly mesmerizing and we, too, fall in love. James’ story, made contemporary by screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carolle Cartwright, manages to surprise and gratify, with subtle storytelling and a wonderfully satisfying ending. In addition to the mesmerizing, Maisie, Lincoln, remarkably played by Skarsgård, and Margo, who by all accounts we should hate for marrying her boss and don’t; perhaps partially because of Vanderham’s palpable sincerity, give us real people – complete with the all the flaws and emotional baggage we expect. Moore actually read the script prior to it reaching the directors’ hands and she plays broken Suanane, with complete perfection. Coogan, who Siegel and McGehee tell me offers a tinge of comedy to the tale, matches her passion and meshes flawlessly. In a character driven film, casting is everything and Kaufman, as its directors attest, could not have been more spot on.
What Maisie Knew doesn’t move at a fast pace, but rather with the pacing of life and because we watched sometimes woefully, through Maisie’s eyes, we can’t help but fall in love and feel what she feels. As a parent and grandparent, my heart broke often and then my heart felt satisfaction and restrained joy, at the story’s surprisingly subtle climax and passionate finale. Bravo to Siegel and McGehee for finding and giving us the gem of a film. I am placing an A in my grade book. It is perhaps one of the best films I have seen thus far this year.