We'd like to believe that children will survive our mistakes, our inadequacies and our absolute failures. We believe in their resilience, because studies have shown us time and again that children somehow maintain the ability to love parents who treat them horribly. Children seem to experience a sense of wonder even when everything that surrounds them is complete and utter chaos.
There is, however, another reality that we like to deny. I believe it strongly and its truth is at the fractured and aching heart of What Maisie Knew, a 21st century film extraordinarily adapted from a 19th century novel by Henry James. Maisie (newcomer Onata Aprile) is a six-year-old pawn in the lives of Beale (Steve Coogan) and Susanna (Julianne Moore), a briefly happy couple whose mutual fits of narcissism likely destroyed their marriage and is slowly and heartbreakingly causing the disintegration of their child. The beauty of What Maisie Knew is that it seems to get the full spectrum of Maisie's experience ranging from the likely persisting childlike wonder that allows her to continue to survive and the undeniable fragility that wonders into how many different shards this child is being broken.
If you've ever been broken, What Maisie Knew will likely break your heart. If you haven't, you will either find yourself completely captivated by the film and hypnotized by its authenticity or you will find yourself refusing to surrender yourself to it because to surrender could be simply too challenging, too vulnerable and too painful.
D.P. Giles Nuttgens lenses the in such a way that it would be criminal for his effort to not be recognized come awards season. Nuttgens' camera work is insightful and intimate and at times seeming to dangle right on that incredibly fine line between hope and despair. Throughout the film, he aims his camera at Maisie's level as if to remind us of the larger than life that she is viewing all the chaos and madness and anger and abuse that is unfolding in her world. There were moments when I simply had to remind myself to breathe, then breathe again and again and again.
We aren't really given much of a chance to appreciate any of the "finer" qualities of Beale, a successful businessman, or Susanna, an aging rock n' roller type. The film opens with the two of them in a rather brutal fit of verbal jousting, yet wisely the film never allows them to be unfathomable beasts. This is not unfathomable. It would almost be more comfortable if it were, but this is real and rich and authentic and what can sometimes happen to all of us in our daily lives or in the midst of divorce or even simply a break-up.
We fight. We say things. We do things. We lick our wounds. We seek revenge. We think we love our children, but sometimes our children simply become bullet points on our agenda.
What Maisie Knew speaks the truth. It is possible that our children won't bounce back. It is possible that all the resilience in the world can't save their wondrous souls or broken hearts. It is possible to truly break our children.
We may not realize we're doing it. We may not intend to do it.
But we do it.
The performance from newcomer Onata Aprile is astounding precisely because it's not astounding. It's not dramatic. It's not like we're sitting in our chairs watching Precious all over again. This is, perhaps, even more frightening because for a good majority of the film young Maisie feels like the child next door or the child in your very own home listening to you as you fight with your "loved one" and stupidly believe that they aren't listening and they aren't impacted. Aprile is natural and authentic and honest in what may be not so much a performance as it is simply inhabiting a place somewhere deep inside a character. Her ability to portray the true complexity of Maisie is what makes this such a powerful film, especially as everything winds down and we're left to decide for ourselves what is happening and what will happen and whether or not we choose to believe in hope or wonder or despair or inevitability.
Susanna and Beale are not monsters. There are times they try, mostly failing, but they try to rise to the occasion. Steve Coogan is perfectly cast as Beale, a man who is blindly self-absorbed yet far from cruel and frequently quite charming. Julianne Moore's disciplined performance makes her character even more heartbreaking as we watch a tremendously irresponsible woman whose expression of maternal instinct seems to be defined by control. She has a moment of insight for which we are grateful, but it's impossible to not want to stand and applaud when her new boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) screams at her "You don't deserve her."
In fact, it's the ancillary characters in the film who seem to most deeply understand the damage being done to Maisie. Skarsgard gives a wonderfully tender performance as Lincoln, a young man who initially arouses our suspicions yet who seems to tap into Maisie's spirit with a refreshing honesty. That same connection surfaces with Margo (Joanna Vanderham), initially Maisie's nanny but eventually Beale's new girlfriend. Vanderham's Margo is kind yet human and equally aware of the damage being done yet somehow we constantly wonder if she can and will do anything to help it all.
Nick Urata's original music is haunting yet emotionally resonant and never manipulative, while Madeleine Gavin edits the film in such a way that she allows moments to linger and finesse their way into your heart and mind.
What Maisie Knew is currently on a limited arthouse run with distributor Millennium Entertainment and is opening up in Indianapolis this weekend, May 31, at Keystone Art Cinema. While the film may sound like it plays out like an emotionally exhausting emotional whirlwind, the truth is that it's simply an incredibly well made and emotionally resonant drama made infinitely more effective thanks to a fantastic ensemble cast and a simply extraordinary young actress named Onata Aprile.
On a weekend when the truly horrible After Earth and the stunningly mediocre Now You See Me are finding their way into multiplexes, do yourself a favor and venture over to Keystone Art Cinema for a film you truly won't forget for all the right reasons.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic