What Maisie Knew
It can be a double-edged sword when there are lots of great actors headlining a movie. So often the starry cast belies a weak script or clichéd story (Woody Allen is particularly guilty of this, although he has been vindicated by his latest offering, Blue Jasmine). The Oceans Eleven franchise started really taking the mickey when the actors looked to be having a better time than the audience.
What Maisie Knew boasts Oscar-bait Julianne Moore, British comedian Steve Coogan and Swedish heartthrob of American television, Alexander Skarsgard: an eclectic if potentially heavenly cast. Excitingly, this excoriating tale of parents splitting up and doing everything you shouldn’t for the sake of the child stuck in the middle turns out to be even better than you could hope.
The film takes Maisie’s point of view, the camera gently following the eccentrically dressed young child from home to home, step-parent to step-parent, as she plays her powerless role in the negotiation of her parents’ separation. The viewer therefore only sees what Maisie sees, ingenuously bringing us directly into her experience.
But the power of this film really belongs to the adults, all of whose performances are brilliant – Coogan is better than he’s ever been, perfectly personifying a horribly recognisable bad father against Moore’s Oscar-deserving turn as the narcissistic but loving rock star mother. Support from the unfathomably gorgeous Skarsgard softens a few of the emotional blows that render this film incisive and insightful, devastating but delicious.
Back in 2001, the Tilda Swinton-starring The Deep End foreshadowed co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s talent for capturing the frailties of human nature and presenting characters who are enthralling despite dubious levels of moral fibre. They have scored again here – while Coogan and Moore behave badly, our judgement is not easily doled out, since both actors create real people with understandable motivations. Moore in particular earns plaudits for wordlessly allowing a flicker across her face to spell out several conflicting emotions and a resulting epiphany.
What Maisie Knew is a delightful surprise for its depth, its warmly layered characters and its cinematic flair. If the narrative lapses somewhat predictably in places, this criticism is soothed by things working out exactly as you – and Maisie – might want them to.