The idea of updating a story out of its original time period or setting is something to be taken seriously and carefully, to make sure the essence of the tale is not lost in translation. By moving Henry James' 1897 novel What Maisie Knew into modern-day New York City, screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright and directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel were playing with fire. But their lovely, attentive update keeps intact its melancholy, poignant look at privilege, justice and love, as the fate of a young girl hangs in the balance of her parents' divorce and custody battle. Though this may make it look as if Messrs. McGehee and Siegel are doing a sort of tony version of Kramer vs Kramer, it's not like that at all: it's a perfectly calibrated, beautifully discrete story of modern-day relationships, as seen through the eyes of the preternaturally grown-up six-year-old Maisie Beale.

     Maisie is aware she is being used as leverage in the messy battle between her rock star mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art gallerist father Beale (Steve Coogan), but she is never in doubt of how much they love her, and of their manoeuvres to win her allegiance while hurting the other partner. No wonder Maisie, in a scarily poised performance by the equally six-year-old Onata Aprile, feels more at ease with the other adults in her life, who are also collateral damage to the battle between Susanna and Beale: Margo (Joanna Vanderham), her former nanny who is being unwittingly used by Beale to gain the girl's custody, and Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), the sweet-natured bartender Susanna uses to get back at Beale. Maisie becomes, at the same time, cause and consequence; she is a weapon in a divorce and a catalyst for a rapprochement between Margo and Lincoln, cancelling out the pain.

     Ms. Aprile's guileless presence is well used by Messrs. McGehee and Siegel to keep the remainder of the cast on their toes at all time - even if it's Ms. Moore who has the "showiest" role and has more to work with (which she does with her trademark gusto), this is clearly an ensemble piece where everything is closely intertwined and one off note can risk bringing down the whole picture. Elegantly and intelligently, What Maisie Knew avoids all bum notes while never needing to raise its pitch and speaking with the audience rather than at them.

USA 2013
99 minutes
Cast Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham, Steve Coogan
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel; screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright; based on the novel by Henry James What Maisie Knew; cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (colour, widescreen); composer Nick Urata; designer Kelly McGehee; costumes Stacey Battat; editor Madeleine Gavin; producers William Teitler, Charles Weinstock, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Daniel Crown, Red Crown Productions, Weinstock Productions and William Teitler Productions in association with 120db Films, KODA Entertainment, Dreambridge Films, Image Entertainment and 10th Hole Productions
Screened March 26th 2013  (DVD, Lisbon)


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