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What Maisie Knew

By Karen Martin

This article was published July 12, 2013 at 2:07 a.m.


Bad, bad mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) shares a rare tender moment with her precocious daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) in the modernized fi lm version of Henry James’ What Maisie Knew.

Julianne Moore isn’t all that convincing as a rock ’n’ roll singer. But she sure can play a monstrous mom.

In What Maisie Knew, Moore’s Susanna is an aging rocker - over-dyed too-long hair, ridiculously high heels, too-tight jeans and troweled-on makeup - who relives the glory days by watching her live performances on a big screen TV with her band mates and noodling around on a grand piano while writing songs. She’s not famous enough to be recognized on the street, but has a strong enough fan base to afford a handsome Tribeca apartment, complete with a recording studio and a uniformed doorman. With the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle comes a narcissism and inflated sense of importance that is rivaled only by that of her partner, obnoxious art dealer Beall (Steve Coogan).

The nasty pair spend their time together hurling brutal insults, accusations and put-downs at each other. Think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the literacy - there is nothing glamorous or clever about their arguments. Each is out to do as much down-and-dirty damage as possible.

In the midst of their ongoing war is 6-year-old daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile). Wide-eyed and mild-mannered, Maisie is creative, intelligent, curious, well stocked with toys and adorably dressed. She’s being raised by selfish parents who forget to pick her up from school, drop her off without notice on doorsteps of people who may or may not be home, and seem to be aware of Maisie only when she’s standing in front of them. They certainly don’t care that their viciousness is raining blows down on this delicate, defenseless little girl. She takes it without complaint. It’s the only life she knows.

This is tough stuff, and directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel don’t let up, even when the miserable pair split up. Beale bounces back by moving Margo (Joanna Vanderham), Maisie’s devoted Scottish nanny, into his new apartment (and bed), and Susanna retaliates with Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard of True Blood), a young, handsome and sweet-natured bartender. You’d think this fresh air would dilute the poisonous atmosphere, but no: Susanna and Beale continue to use Maisie as a weapon against each other while Margo and Lincoln become unwilling pawns in the battle.

Susanna soon becomes jealous of Lincoln’s affection for Maisie, and Beale’s relationship with Margo is based more on the need for a child-minder than anything else. A showdown is inevitable, with Maisie being forced to choose between her mother and the only people who have shown they truly care about her.

Although Moore’s natural elegance detracts from her portrayal as a fast-fading rocker, her potent emotional range pays off in creating a dreadful parent who is likely to raise everyone’s blood pressure whenever she appears on the screen. It’s hard to imagine what goes through the head of a child actor when Moore alternately cuddles her and, two seconds later, commences shrieking at the top of her lungs. Whatever she’s thinking, Aprile delivers one of the best film performances ever. Somehow she’s able to convey Maisie’s helplessness at controlling the situation without making her seem pathetic. It’s devastating, and hard to forget.

What Maisie Knew is based on an 1897 novel of the same name by Henry James about the sensitive daughter of divorced, irresponsible parents. Despite the different times and places, the situations in both prove that child abuse doesn’t have to be physical to do damage.

What Maisie Knew 89 Cast: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham Director: Scott McGehee and David Siegel Rating: R for language Running time: 99 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 29 on 07/12/2013

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