Monday, 2 September 2013

What Maisie Knew, dir. Scott McGehee, David Siegel, wr. Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright, based on What Maisie Knew by Henry James, st. Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham, Alexander Skarsgård

Those NSPCC Brian Eno-scored donation ads tend to paint abuse in broad strokes, yet where abuse becomes murky is charting where exactly along the line uninspiring parenting turns into full-on neglect. What Maisie Knew, based on Henry James century-plus-old source material, places the titular Maisie, a quietly perceptive six-year-old girl (played with incapacitating sweetness and grace by Onata Aprile) directly amongst her warring parents, a vortex of verbal bitchiness fought by art-dealer Beale (Coogan) and his rockstar girlfriend Susanna (Moore). The film's narrative unfolds, predictably rather sadly, from the perspective of their daughter, who bears witness to adults' cruelty and selfishness with not so much as a squeak. Well, there is a singular tear that'll have you Googling for information about UK adoption processes, but it's so modestly placed it'll break your heart. In places, What Maisie Knew recalls the equally fantastic but comparatively overwrought Kramer Vs. Kramer in its revelation of the machinations of adult disharmony and its perpetrators blindness to the effect it has on their own. Crucially, Beale and Susanna aren't monsters, just crappy parents. It would be easier to polarise them were they responsible for more visceral crimes, but the film deftly plays on the familiar tit-for-tat relationship breakdowns we see all around us. McGehee and Siegel keep things just this side of whimsical, a cinematic aesthetic that mirrors Maisie's naivety and innocence, and manages to offer a number of tellingly pointed scenes without leading or signposting. But this is Aprile's show, and her performance is stunning, not due to her precocious acting ability or copious experience, but as a recent interview shows, her ability to be herself - gentle, unassuming and unaffected by the inevitable onset of maturity and all the accountability it brings.