“I don’t want to ruin it.”
There are films that are such magical experience the first time you see them, so much so that you worry when it’s time to watch it again, even though you’re insanely excited, there’s no way it will hold up and be as exquisite as before.
What Maisie Knew is one of those films. From the very first notes of its breezy, colourful score and the soft lighting, I was in love. It’s a film that comes along rarely these days – it knows exactly the story it wants to tell, and tells it.
But oh, how amazingly it does exactly that. For 90 minutes (a magical running time), I was under the spell of the excellent talent behind this beautiful film. The script does wonders adapting a book that was written 119 years ago, a story that is so modern it’s hard to imagine working in any other context.
The most surprising thing about What Maisie Knew is how unsentimental or ‘grabby’ it is. In any other situation, the events of this film would be just a recipe for a sickly, sentimental disaster. Maisie is a character that – all too easily – could be turned into a whiney, droopy child that cries every five minutes in a desperate attempt to win the audience over, all the other characters following suit, turning this film into an eye roll-inducing sap fest.
Crazily enough, there’s no trace of that. Through Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s delicate direction, what could have been easily a very overblown film is instead a gracefully measured drama. McGehee and Siegel understand that the key to this story is to be observant, a mere fly on the wall of the accelerating decay of Maisie’s world, who is another fly on the wall, unsure about most of what is going on around her.
Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright’s long-gestating script just glides into step with this atmosphere perfectly, realising that making the film simple, only about what Maisie knows and sees is of utmost importance, leaving much unsaid. There is no lengthy, unnecessary, heavy background stories to stumble through, no moments of epiphany, no ‘big’ scenes of great reveals for characters (incredibly well written characters, might I add), rather we are witness to exactly what is going on in Maisie’s life at the moment, given a window into her world for a short amount of time, where it’s the fights she witnesses, glances between the adults around her that are the most telling, taking every shuttling back and forth as ‘normal’, because, as the audience realises, she’s spent her whole life in this flux.
The performances are uniformly excellent here, from Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan (he had a good year last year!) as parents that seem to forever be stuck with teenage behaviour, to Alexander Skarsgard as a young man that, seemingly, previously didn’t have many responsibilities, before being pulled into this war.
But it’s Onata Aprile and Joanna Vanderham, the film’s youngest cast members, that deliver the most remarkable work. Aged just 6 and 19, respectively, at the time of filming, both are startlingly mature beyond their years. There is not a shred of desperation in their performances, no ‘cheap’ clawings of emotion, rather a presences that are powerful through silence. Aprile is able to communicate a whole spectrum of emotion just through a quietly observing look, that speaks volumes more about her character than any blatant emotional moments possibly could. It is evident that her performance is an incredibly natural and uncoached one, truly letting her ‘live in’ the character and play to her full potential, which makes it all the more remarkable.
As Margo, Vanderham is devastatingly incredible. Like Aprile, she is able to convey an entire back story through an incredibly nuanced performance, not requiring obvious explanations. Within the space of a minute, you know exactly how she got to where she is, what lead her to getting entangled in this mess, and why she did. Not even out of her teens, for all intents and purposes, during production (go back and watch some of her scenes with that in mind), something that is so remarkable about her turn is that it’s a performance that you would expect to be given by someone older than Margo is supposed to be, someone who was that age, and has had distance to contemplate it. But instead, even at an incredibly young age, she achieves a rare level of careful observation and intricacy, making you understand that she is (as perfectly stated by The Playlist) “young and naive enough to end up in a relationship with (Beale), but also wise enough to realise that she’s quickly made a mistake”. Both Aprile and Vanderham have natural chemistry, definitely ‘selling’ every turn to narrative takes to a tee. I hope both of them, namely Vanderham (I’d love to see Aprile appear in films when she’s older), are getting bombarded with job offers, both major stars are in the making here.
Despite playing wildly different characters, all performers have one natural trait: no one is a through and through ‘saint’ or ‘sinner’ (you could make a case against this for Coogan’s character Beale, but to be honest, he doesn’t have a part as big as the others). Instead, all have moments of imperfection and redemption, creating portraits of complexity and tender emotion, something that Aprile, Vanderham, and Skarsgard excel at.
From the soft, sun dappled cinematography to the dream-like score (my favourite of last year), What Maisie Knew is a film of achingly beautiful simplicity, without a hint of melodrama, understanding the value of silence, contemplation, and ambiguity. Some may perceive the ending as too tidy, but it is one of my favourites of recent memory, offering a coda at the perfect moment. Maisie’s journey definitely isn’t over, but perhaps the worst has passed, and the clouds are clearing to offer a moment of cool, sea air clarity.
As delicate as a breeze that sways a kite caught on a power line,What Maisie Knew proves that sometimes, the best stories are the smallest, and that some, no matter when they were written, can speak universal truth and timeless messages and values, even in the vastly different world of today.
What Maisie Knew received a limited release in August 2013.
M (coarse language), 95 mins.