Henry James' 1897 novel is transported to contemporary NYC with Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan.
D.I.V.O.R.C.E. It’s often a plot point in movies, but the list of films that actually focus on marital splits is a reasonably short one, with Kramer Vs. Kramer the most famous example, and Asghar Farhadi’s masterful A Separation the most recent. What Maisie Knew, the latest from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, has the DNA of both, but its direct source material is much older as it’s an adaptation of the 1897 Henry James novel of the same name.
Yet there’s not a frockcoat in sight, as writers Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright have painlessly transposed James’ premise into the present day. As the film begins, young Maisie (impressive newcomer Onata Aprile) looks on, without much reaction, as her parents, art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) and Chrissie Hynde-ish rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore), launch into another furious argument. The filmmakers smartly keep the film locked to Maisie’s point-of-view, with low camera angles and barely a shot without Aprile present. It’s a nifty evocation of the ways in which divorce can affect a child.
Before too long, Beale and Susanna’s marriage ruptures and both find new, significantly younger partners. This is less because they’ve found new love and more out of pure spite for one another. Beale shacks up with the nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), while Susanna marries bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). As Maisie becomes a pawn in her parents’ combative custody battles, alternately spoiled and neglected, she grows closer to her step-parents and they to each other.
It’s in these segments that the film sings — Margo and Lincoln are the most fully drawn characters, sweet but never saintly, and both Skarsgård and (especially) Vanderham are utterly winning in the roles, displaying great chemistry with each other and Aprile. The same can’t be said for Maisie’s biological parents.
Though Coogan and Moore are typically strong — the former in particular delivers some of his best ‘serious’ film work to date, the shadow of Partridge nowhere to be seen — the script offers them little in the way of nuance. The duo prove to be so irredeemably monstrous that credibility is duly strained and each new outrage just makes the film feel repetitive.
There’s an extent to which that’s true to James’ original text, but more fatally, McGehee and Siegel never find a way to really get inside Maisie’s head. We find out What Maisie Saw, but not really What Maisie Knew or even How Maisie Changed. She’s essentially the same person when the closing credits roll (following a forced and unconvincingly happy ending) as she was at the film’s opening. For all the indignity and neglect she suffers, she seems more-or-less Teflon-coated.
Little festival buzz and Siegel and McGehee are perennial indie cinema underachievers.
Solidly constructed and sometimes very touching...
… but doesn't linger long in the memory.