Renders social-issue story into shameful soap opera

August 4th, 2013

This article is more than 11 years old.

A warts-and-all look at child custody battles, Henry James’ 1897 novel What Maisie Knew is still eerily relevant today. Loosely adapted for the big screen, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s contemporary portrait of acrimony and family strife feel like one long, tedious pursuit in anguish.

Similar to Beasts of the Southern Wild, McGehee and Siegel harness this embittered soap opera around the wide-eyed charm of a child. Played pensively by Aprile, Maisie is the daughter of ‘worst parents of the century’ award winners Susanna and Beale. From the confines of their Manhattan home, the unmarried couple spend their waking hours bickering and screaming at each other, while their daughter mutely observes from the fringes with their fraught au pair, Margo (Vanderham). When the two finally decide to call it quits, an unyielding custody battle ensues. A pawn in their game of one-upmanship, Maisie is exposed to their selfishness and unthinking cruelty, intermittingly ping-ponging back and forth between their homes and new spouses, or left abandoned on the school playground.

At least shooting all of the hostilities from Maisie’s pint-sized perspective means that we are privy to some brilliant performances. The ever-reliable Moore plays a ripened rock goddess/distracted mother with infuriating authenticity, while Coogan’s turn as her slimy, highfalutin’ boyfriend will make your skin crawl. As the haphazard parents neglect their daughter, screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright forget to develop any characterisation, meaning that an incidental battle between good and evil ensues: Susanna and Beale are pitted against the benevolent Margo and Susanna’s goofy new flame, Lincoln (Skarsgård).

Not only does this modern retelling lack the uninhibited exuberance and humour of James’ masterwork, it duplicitously uses the young girl as a cipher to which the swishy slow motion melodrama circumvents. With the filmmakers peering over the shoulder of forlorn but ultimately vacuous Maisie, we get no sense of maturing perspective or understanding of the horrendous situation she unjustly finds herself in. An unrelentingly feel-bad film, entertainment is expunged to make way for a lecture in bad parenting. Never mind what Maisie knew – what were McGehee and Siegel thinking?

What Maisie Knew (3)

Dir: Scott McGehee/David Siegel; US drama, 2012, 99 mins; Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham
Premiered August 1
Playing at Dagmar, Grand Teatret and Gentofte


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