What Maisie Knew, 109 mins, rated TBC, opens 22 Aug 2013


(This is my review as published in the August issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

The film What Maisie Knew gives a contemporary SoHo, New York location to Henry James’ 1897 novel, which was set in England. James writes from the perspective of Maisie, a young girl whose parents divorced when she was only six. The novel unfolds at the end of the 19th century, when divorce was much less common. For most of that century, divorce was only available by Act of Parliament, so the novel must have been quite remarkable in its day. James intended it as a harsh criticism of irresponsible parenting and an indictment of an increasingly self-centred and decadent society. Sound familiar?

The updated version of this story is as fresh and relevant as ever. Maisie’s mother Susanna (Julianne Moore from Boogie Nights, 1997, Magnolia, 1999) is a veteran rock star (like Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders) who once had great fame, and is now basking in its embers, trying to make a new album. Her father, Beale (Steven Coogan from The Trip (2010) and The Look of Love, 2013) is an art dealer whose business is suffering a downturn in the art market in the wake of the global financial crisis. He spends most of his time on his mobile phone or on international flights.

The first version of this screenplay was written 18 years ago, and involved phone booths rather than mobile phones. The screenplay had to be rewritten to incorporate newer technology, and the location was changed from the upper west side to the newer, hipper locale of downtown New York. Maisie’s name remains unchanged from the Henry James, but seems completely apt for the child of upper echelon Manhattanites.

The novel was thought to be unfilmable, because it mostly involves Maisie’s interior thoughts. But this is where the film succeeds brilliantly. Because the whole film comes from Maisie’s point of view, sometimes there are irrelevant visuals, with action taking place off-camera, and arguments only heard from a distance. We only know what Maisie knows.

This makes for a visually striking film, but it also creates a difficulty: Maisie is something of a cipher. As most of what we see and know is from her point of view, we do not get any insight into what she is thinking or feeling. It is frustrating for the audience (Doesn’t Maisie know her parents are no good for her?, we think. They both profess their love for her, but they both constantly let her down). The technique makes Maisie appear more passive than she probably is, but this is absolutely true to the book.

What’s also true to the book is what seems most improbable about the film, almost tipping it over into soap opera. In order to improve their chances in the custody battle for Maisie, Beale marries Maisie’s young nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), and Susanna marries a handsome young groupie, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård, from Melancholia, 2011). Both these young people – Maisie’s stepparents – take more responsibility for Maisie’s well-being than either of her parents. Wouldn’t it be nice if they fell in love? Yes it would.

In one sense, the ending (changed from the more bitter ending of James) might seem overly optimistic and unrealistic. But it is important to remember that in this film, we only know 'What Maisie Knows', and what she knows is that she is with people who love and care for her and take their responsibilities seriously.

The child who plays Maisie, Onata Aprile, gives a natural, and wondrous, performance. There are no histrionics, there’s no false cuteness. She’s just a kid, dealing with the day-to-day: school, nanny, play, and erratic parenting. Restraint is the key, as it is with the entire film.

100 Bloody Acres

Also opening this month, on 1 August, is the Australian slasher/thriller/comedy 100 Bloody Acres (90 mins, rated TBC). In what must be a nod to Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), this is the story of the Morgan Brothers, who operate a small organic fertiliser business in a remote corner rural Australia. They supplement their “special blend” fertilizer with road-kill, but sometimes that road-kill is human…

Don’t be put off by the summary: this very funny, very bloody film subverts its genre and is a witty take on country life and the problems of small business. Its talented cast includes Damon Herriman and Angus Sampson, who are perfectly cast as the brothers.