New York City. Six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the daughter of rock singer Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan). Susanna and Beale have divorced, with Susanna granted custody, and arguments break out every time Beale visits. When Susanna changes the locks, Beale starts a fight for joint custody.
Henry James's novel What Maisie Knew was first published in 1897 and is generally one of the more admired works of the author's middle period, before the far more dense work that he produced in the early years of the twentieth century. At the time it was controversial for dealing with the then-taboo subject of divorce, though filtered through the consciousness of the young child of the title, the daughter at the centre of her parents' disintegrating relationship. Many of James's novels and short fiction have attracted the attention of filmmakers, but What Maisie Knew less so than others. There was a 58-minute film made in 1976 by Babette Mangolte: I've not seen it but clips are available at Mangolte's website here. Before that in 1968, BBC2 made a three-part adaptation, an early colour production with Sally Thomsett as Maisie, but that is sadly lost from the archives.
For their fifth feature film, the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, have updated James's novel from London in the 1890s to contemporary New York City. The filmmakers have form in this: their second feature, The Deep End, was a modern-day updating of a 1947 novel (The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding) which had previously been filmed in 1949 by Max Ophuls as The Reckless Moment. Giving canonical authors contemporary updates or taking other “liberties” with them is an often vexed issue. It's done with Shakespeare very often, but other writers seem to only be able to be seen in their particular period. (Jane Austen for example: see the reactions to Patricia Rozema's controversial take on Mansfield Park.) With James, the story certainly survives the translation. While divorce is much less of a contentious issue now, instead the film takes that in its stride and negotiates, through Maisie's eyes, what amounts to not just a love triangle but a love square: Susanna, Beale, Susanna's new boyfriend Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) and Maisie's nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) who enters into a relationship with Beale and marries him. Some of this we are required to put together from what we see of it onscreen (the decline of Beale and Margo's marriage, for example). In the end Maisie finds more fitting parents in the two in the above permutations who didn't father her and who didn't give birth to her. Along the way, Maisie is used as a bargaining tool between two emotionally needy parents: neurotic Susanna and Beale, a cellphone semi-permanently at his ear. The directors and their DP, Giles Nuttgens, often keep the camera at Maisie's level, though not always – as they point out in the commentary, if they had been rigorous about this you would have seen very little of the 6'4” Skarsgård above the waist.
The directors have been open-minded about casting, with only Julianne Moore and Onata Aprile among the principals being native to the USA, the others being an Englishman, a Scotswoman and a Swede, with only the last not playing his actual nationality. The acting by the adults is impressive across the boards with Joanna Vanderham (aged twenty at the time of production, and playing older than her actual age, in her big-screen debut) holding her own alongside the more experienced cast members. Julianne Moore does her own singing, with The Kills playing her band. But this film would be nothing without Maisie at its centre, and Onata Aprile (aged six when this was shot) gives one of the finest child performances I've seen in a long time. It's due to her that this film is so affecting.
What Maisie Knew is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Curzon Film World. It was the former which was supplied for review, and affiliate links refer to this edition. (For those for the Blu-ray, go here.) The DVD is dual-layered, PAL format, and encoded for Region 2 only.
Shot on film (3-perf Super 35 via a 2K digital intermediate, for those who like to know these things), What Maisie Knew is transferred in the correct ratio of 2.35:1. There's really nothing much to say here, other than this looked pretty much as it did when I saw it at the cinema (in a DCP presentation, needless to say). The transfer is true to the somewhat muted colour palette, blacks are solid are solid and the film grain is noticeable but remains filmlike. You should expect a new film which has been in the digital realm since its negative left the camera to look pristine, and it does.
The soundtrack comes in two versions, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). There is also an audio-descriptive soundtrack in Dolby Surround. There's not a great deal of difference between the first two, given that this is a dialogue-driven film with the surrounds used almost entirely for ambience and the music score. Not much call for LFE either. I am glad to see that this English-language film has hard-of-hearing subtitles available.
The extras begin with an audio commentary by the two directors, describing in some depth their approach to making the film (and they say why they shot on film rather than digital) with Miss Aprile, as the end credits call her, getting a considerable amount of praise. So does Joanna Vanderham, who had to cry during each one of twelve takes of a key scene. This is well worth a listen.
There are four deleted scenes, with a Play All option: “Locksmith” (1:59), “Photo Shoot” (0:35), “Run Out and Holly” (2:19), “Susanna Video” (2:05). You can see why these were removed from the final version, though the first and third feature unidentified actors who ended up on the cutting room floor.
The extras are completed by the theatrical trailer (2:12).