Based on the 1897 Henry James novel of the same name, 'What Maisie Knew' is a contemporary update on an emotionally tumultuous story involving the dissolution of a family and subsequent custody battle between two wealthy, but horrifically self-centered individuals that is told from the unique perspective of the titular Maisie.
Now if you were able to get through the previous statement without rolling your eyes, and thinking, "Dear God, do we really need another movie about privileged New Yorkers and their mistreated, inconvenient spawn?" then good for you. Now, on the flipside, if you're still attempting to adjust your vision after the film's description found you reflexively peering at the inside of your own skull, well, you'll be happy to know just how saccharine-free and otherwise unsentimental 'What Maisie Knew' actually manages to be – which, considering the subject matter and the adorable moppet at the center of this small, intimate tale of childhood innocence lost, is actually a tremendous feat in and of itself.
As mentioned above, what sets this film apart is the vantage point from which the audience sees all the bitter infighting and nastiness unfold. The character of Maisie (played here by a sweetly convincing Onata Aprile) and her particular perspective make a film that is otherwise rife with the potential for overwrought melodrama far more insightful and heartbreaking in its delivery, than if it had been told from the point of view of any of the four adults comprising the remainder of the film's primary cast. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel ('Suture,' 'The Deep End,' 'Bee Season' and 'Uncertainty'), working from a script by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, take a great deal of pressure off their young star by demonstrating the confusion and uncertainty a six-year-old might have witnessing a divorce in progress by not asking Aprile to respond to the events in a the more conventional Hollywood manner of histrionics, precociousness or by placing the child in some perilous situation, as a facile substitute for emotionally complexity.
Instead, McGehee and Siegel work the film around a kind of dream-logic; scenes are entered into in medias res, and frequently end without resolution. Additionally, an undisclosed, but significant amount of time in the characters' lives is represented in the film's runtime, but is compressed into what feels like a few weighty afternoons and evenings. It's almost as though the narrative was being cobbled together by Maisie, years down the road, from hazily recalled memories of a time she'd rather forget. This is, without question, a risky direction to take, but it is, by and large, a successful one that imbues the film's emotional high-points with a wistful exuberance that counteracts the confused proceedings that set the plot in motion.
While Aprile is at the center of nearly every scene in the film, McGehee and Siegel round out the cast with a bevy of actors who convincingly hide behind a steely veneer comprised of resentment, jealousy and indignation or, in the case of the fantastic Alexander Skarsgård ('True Blood,' 'Battleship'), manage to elicit the same kind of confusion as Maisie – which is brilliantly illustrated when the little girl silently teaches her mother's new husband to hold a child's hand while crossing a busy Manhattan street.
Steve Coogan wonderfully portrays Maisie's father with the kind of acute narcissism tempered by bouts of equally acute self-loathing that he's exhibited in the films of Michael Winterbottom – i.e., 'The Trip,' 'Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story' and, most recently, 'The Look of Love.' But rather than be an exercise in self-parody, Coogan's performance is subtle and powerful in the way a pitiless man can acknowledge his mistakes (and yet do nothing to amend them) in a superb and layered scene near the end of the film that encapsulates the essence of his character.
And although the performance by Julianne Moore is sound and typical of her talents, the role of aging rock goddess Susanna is arguably the weakest character in the film. For whatever reason, Moore isn't given too much to work with and though some scenes – like Susanna telling Maisie to recall a memory that never happened – have the requisite disturbing effect, much of the performance comes off as warmed over remnants of the character she played in 'Boogie Nights.'
For all the potential melodrama at hand, 'What Maisie Knew' is ultimately an exercise in restraint. Although it stutters a bit in rounding the corner to an open-ended conclusion, the film manages to live up to Henry James' novel, while also creating something that contemporary audiences can relate to; a fact that demonstrates not only how destructive and uprooting divorce has always been, but also how it's the smallest and most innocent who often wind up being collateral damage in the ensuing conflict.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'What Maisie Knew' comes from Millenium Entertainment as a 25GB Blu-ray with a DVD copy. The film comes in the standard two-disc keepcase with an outer sleeve sporting the same artwork as the paper insert. There are several previews before the feature, but all may be skipped to jump directly to the top menu.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 codec on 'What Maisie Knew' manages to bring a presentable and pleasant image to the screen, despite being a little short on things like fine detail and clarity. While that may sound like the beginning of a poor assessment of the movie's image quality, it's not. The transfer here is actually quite good; it has nice contrast levels with rich, dark blacks, tempered whites and a decent amount of depth in nearly every frame. Colors are typically bright and vivid – especially the dresses worn by the titular Maisie – and frequently pop on screen without appearing over saturated. Overall, it's a nice transfer.
On the flipside, there is a noticeable amount of detail and refinement in the picture that works to the film's advantage in fortifying the dream-logic notion of the film, but it takes away some of the finer aspects of the picture that hardcore HD enthusiasts might be looking for in a modern picture. To be honest, though the lack of super-fine detail is evident, the overall look of the film is not hindered in any way, and the graininess or slight haze on the image tends to accentuate the filmmakers' designs at the expense of a spotlessly clean picture.
For whatever reason, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks seem to be a crapshoot in terms of quality. Sometimes, they can be rich and detailed listening experiences and sometimes, like here with 'What Maisie Knew,' they can be muted affairs, requiring the listener to crank the volume just to hear the actors' deliver their dialogue, then quickly turning it down to balance out the musical score – or, in this case, anytime Julianne Moore's musician character plays one of her songs. For the most part, a mix needs to be able to deliver the dialogue in a comfortable and easy to hear manner, and everything else can be judged after that. This disc seems to have missed that memo, as it stumbles right out the gate by making the first and most important aspect of most films difficult to hear.
Thankfully, the film takes place in a bustling metropolis, so there are some additional atmospheric elements like traffic and the unending march of pedestrians or restaurant patrons to help lend some much-needed depth to the proceedings, and help make this much more than a straightforward, overly talkie (albeit muffled) picture. The atmospheric elements also make good use of the dynamic range by pushing most sound effects and musical elements through the front channel speakers and then allowing smaller, more subtle aspects to be sprinkled about in a judicious manner. It's not a completely immersive mix, but the sections that highlight Manhattan and its denizens helps to make up for the bungling of the dialogue on the rest of the track.
'What Maisie Knew' should be commended as much for eschewing of familiar divorce-film and child-in-peril tropes, as for the superb performances of the actors and the storytelling of the directors. Standouts here are certainly the young Onata Aprile and Steve Coogan, but all involved have helped make an atypical and affecting film about divorce and loss that won't have you rolling your eyes. Although the sound and picture could both be improved, this is an entertaining and emotionally moving film that deserves to be seen. Recommended.