Suffer the Little Children (Film Review: “What Maisie Knew”)

What Maisie Knew is a film adaptation of an 1897 novella by Henry James (that’s right, fellow English Lit. majors…heads up!) starring Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard, and one of my favorite actors, Steve Coogan. You’ll know him from my Norma’s Streaming Picks post on the hilarious film, The Trip and he’s currently co-starring with Dame Judi Dench in Philomena (in theatres now.)


SnapShot Plot

In the opening scene of the film, little Maisie (in a startling debut from Onata Aprile) is being put to bed by her aging rock star mother (in a finely honed and brittle performance by Julianne Moore) who gives her a brief, halfhearted serenade on her guitar.  I think it was the sight of Maisie’s skinny legs and bony knock-knees that had me and, in a fleeting shot of the mother staring at her daughter almost quizzically rather than lovingly, made we want to protect this little girl. We next get a composite view of the home scene:  Maisie, a sweet and loving 6 yr. old; her kind and affectionate nanny; and her bickering parents who apparently don’t feel the need to filter any of their toxic sludge from the impressionable ears and eyes of their young daughter. In fact, when I saw Steve Coogan’s character for the first time (of course in a nasty exchange with Julianne Moore) I didn’t get that he was the father.  The way he came over to brusquely greet Maisie, crack a lame joke and take off had me convinced he must be the mother’s agent or business manager, not the father. These two really put the D in dysfunction and it’s only a matter of time before their knock-down-drag-out-fights find their way into the New York City courtrooms.  But it’s not enough that the parents have separated; they must enact even more inappropriate schemes of retribution against each other, telling themselves they’re trying to preserve stability for Maisie when instead it’s anything but stable.  In fact, things for Maisie become increasingly unsettling as she’s shuttled back and forth and becomes, in essence, both a burden and a trophy to these selfish parents. Enter Lincoln, a shaggy dog bartender who Maisie’s mother decides is just the right new husband who won’t get in the way of her career and whose restaurant shift will make for convenient babysitting.  Oh, and did she mention, he’s tall! What he also is: Kind and Caring and Interested in what Maisie is feeling.  With no strings attached. Things get very interesting when the triangle between the mother, father and Lincoln becomes a quadrangle with the nanny. And pretty heartbreaking, too, when it’s clear that the truer parents to little Maisie come in the form of a hired caregiver and a stepfather she’s only just met, rather than her own biological parents. There are some intense scenes between Maisie and her father in which we can see him almost loving her, only to revert back into the businessman he is at his core, and what passes for fatherly love amounts to a bemused affection, often in a rushed exchange while he’s negotiating some deal on his cell phone.

I mentioned that the young actress who plays Maisie, Onata Aprile, gave a startling performance. Startling in it’s normalcy. This is NOT a Hollywood child actor. Her voice is that of a six year old child, period. Maisie is a resilient and sweet-natured kid who doesn’t act out and throw tantrums; she sees plenty of that in her parents.  Directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee took a chance in shooting the entire film from the point-of-view of Maisie herself, exactly as James did when he wrote the novel. So if you’re on for the ride, you’ll feel things unfold in all their illogical impressions, just like Maisie, which will make for an often unsettling but truer emotional experience.

Parting Shot

There’s a recurring shot in the film, of an empty swing seat from the eye-level of a small child, which for me has become the lingering symbol of this story.  Instead of the happy scene of a little girl being swung by loving parents, in Maisie’s case she’s either been removed entirely from the scene or, worse, finds herself hurled back and forth between two self-centered people who care more about torturing each other than preserving some semblance of a childhood for their daughter. The effect is both chilling and ultimately, just plain sad. We are left wondering if Maisie’s innocence has been completely eroded or if the sweetness in her eyes can look beyond her present circumstance toward a more hopeful future.

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