An adaptation of Henry James’ bestselling 1897 novel – uprooted to modern New York – Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew (2012) is a poignant tale of the gruelling pangs of divorce and how the separation of two mismatched, deeply insensitive individuals has both a positive and negative effect on its titular central character. Tackling such perennial and commonplace themes and subjects, McGehee and Siegel’s latest collaboration, following the tepid Uncertainty (2009), is thought-provoking but unmemorable, assembling a fine cast who make the most of weighty yet transitory material.
Bright newcomer Onata Aprile plays Maisie, a six-year-old girl caught in the throes of a bitter divorce battle waged by her irresponsible rock star mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and detached, unsympathetic art dealer father, Beale (Steve Coogan, in distinctly unlikeable mode). As she is shunted back and forth from wildly different home lives, suddenly taken out of school and generally suffering from a string of ill-conceived and ignorant decisions from her fundamentally flawed parents, Maisie quickly becomes a pawn for bitter one-upmanship as the extent of Susanna and Beale’s parental neglect continues to spiral downwards.
Too busy and self-involved to care for their daughter properly, both parties enlist their new, makeshift partners – Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham) respectively – as carers for their daughter. As Maisie’s bond with each becomes deeper and more affectionate, and a relationship between the two simultaneously begins to blossom, Susanna and Beale are forced into facing some difficult home truths regarding their individual future’s with their daughter. Charting the dormant childishness found in adulthood and its simultaneously cruel and rewarding aspects, James’ tale is an engaging one respectfully told here, mounted in a modern urban climate where alienation is an everyday occurrence.
Adapted by screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, the film has a deft understanding of the novel and the characters that people it, with sharp dialogue that accentuates the central dilemma. This is specifically found in the way Susanna and Beale (a caricature who disappears from the narrative for too long to really resonate) speak to Maisie; like an adult encumbering their situations. It’s in its second half where What Maisie Knew begins to unwind, foregrounding the characters of Lincoln and Margo but rarely making their burgeoning, treacherous relationship anything other than lifelessly conceivable at best.
At a trim 90 minutes, the film deals with too much material to properly comprehend the story, instead opting for a final portion that feels too easy, with decisions being made solely for the ease of conflict resolution. This is specifically summed up by a sunny, simplistic montage that feels as if the depths of familial disquiet have been unfortunately left on the page. McGehee and Siegel’s What Maisie Knew seems to settle for something that is at first emotionally arresting but ultimately somewhat forgettable.
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