Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - What Maisie Knew

Directed by: Scott McGehee
David Siegel

Produced by: William Teitler
Charles Weinstock
Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Daniel Crown

Screenplay by: Nancy Doyne
Carroll Cartwright

Based on: What Maisie Knew by Henry James

Starring: Onata Aprile
Julianne Moore
Alexander Skarsgard
Joanna Vanderham
Steve Coogan

Music by: Nick Urata

Cinematography by: Giles Nuttgens

Editing by: Madeline Gavin

Studio: Red Crown Productions

Distributed by: Millennium Entertainment

Release date(s): September 7, 2012 (Toronto International Film Festival)
May 3, 2013 (United States)
August 23, 2013 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 99 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $6 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $1, 066, 471 (domestic gross only)

Aloha, there, TTWD here, as per usual, shooting from the hip, yadda, yadda, yadda. The movie watching has started to pick itself up again and I can confirm for certain that reviews for Grown Ups 2 and White House Down will coming up soon enough. Anyone who follows this blog knows my feelings on the first Grown Ups and the recent output of one Adam Sandler, and I would say you're not going to get a rant, but those would be famous last words. Also, with regards to White House Down, I am a fan of Roland Emmerich, but his recent output (like much of his back catalogue) has been a bit of a mixed bag, so I'll leave that one up in the air until the time of the review. Because of the lack of output in August, I've decided to compile my work for August and September into one 'Review Of The Month,' and on a side note, Ian Fleming's Casino Royale is a terrific read and I'd recommend you all give it a go, especially if you're into the recent Daniel Craig-led Bond films. So, for all the latest in movies, and the odd off-topic observation, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for analysis is What Maisie Knew, an adaptation of the 1897 Henry James novel of the same name, updated to a contemporary setting of present-day New York. I use contemporary because I feel we are well past the age referred to as 'modern,' and that it is an antiquated term used rather lazily by just about everyone to describe the world we live in. Anywho, me and Monsieur James have a bit of history, given that I had to read his 1898 novella The Turn Of The Screw, which, although the source for Jack Clayton's 1961 The Innocents, I found to be frightfully dull and in terms of nineteenth-century gothic fiction does not hold a candle to the likes of Sheridan Le Fanu or Edgar Allan Poe. However, Henry James has long since started turning over in his grave, so my hope going in was that his lifeless prose did not translate in adaptation over the course of one hundred and fifteen years. In What Maisie Knew, the titular child protagonist (Onata Aprile), is witness to the disintegration of the marriage of her parents, rock star mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan), and their relationship(s) with their new partners Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham). Got it? Good! Let's go!

Starting with the good about What Maisie Knew, I must say that it is an excellently cast film, and certainly the best ensemble of a film I have seen so far this year. The cast as a whole is top-notch. In the supporting roles, we have a strong level of three-dimensional qualities in all of the adults. Julianne Moore is reliable as ever, at moments tender and at other volatile and outright vicious, and Steve Coogan comes across well as both a charming rogue and someone who is quite clearly an unfit father. The younger partners, Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham, are also convincing and believable in their parts. Skarsgard's character could have come across as too sappy, but he is never anything but genuine in his role as nice guy Lincoln. Vanderham too, in her debut feature, is a pleasant surprise with her underlying strength and understanding of the character. The real revelation, and the true heart and soul of the picture, however, is Onata Aprile in the eponymous part of Maisie. Not dissimilar to the work we saw last year from Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Aprile seems to possess this sort of innate intelligence beyond her years, comprehending the whole scheme of things and following appropriately her character's story arc. Never anything less than cute and sympathetic, Aprile's precocious innocence is a wholly endearing quality, especially given the underhanded machinations of her parents. Also, there is something to be said in a casting process about selecting a face, for Aprile's features, which dominates much of the posters in the film's marketing campaign, though on the outside represent a lovely-looking child, hint inside at the inner trauma that the parents are putting her through. My compadre on BBC Radio Five Live Dr. K described the film as a masterclass in acting, and while I wholeheartedly agree, it is Aprile's central performance that sells the picture as a whole. Although the cast is the large selling point of the movie in terms of it's qualities, there are certain other aspects which contribute to the overall tapestry of the picture. As you've perhaps gathered from how I've written about the three-dimensionality of the characters, the script is a uniformly dense, solid piece of work from which the actors derive the core of their parts. Writers Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright have crafted this work from the ground, starting with a tight, narratively appropriate plot structure. In this way, although a script is sometimes by default segmented, here it flows seamlessly from scene to scene as blood along the body's pulsing veins. Also, the implications the structure has on the characters that inhabit it is of importance. As the plot develops, and we, like Maisie, realise that her parents are not necessarily up to scratch in the responsibility of caring for a child, there forms a sort-of surrogate family that surrounds Maisie that is both highly comforting and strangely disturbing at the same time. Also, the dialogue of the film is played for the most part just right down the middle, Doyne and Cartwright using neutral language bereft of the usual melodramatic nonsense and which, like most human conversations, is up in the air for one's own interpretation. The film was shot beautifully by Gilles Nuttgens, a cinematographer most famous for his collaborations with Deepa Mehta and, er, Battlefield Earth. Thankfully, What Maisie Knew contains none of the dutch angle nonsense of said film, and is instead shot with the wise modesty of a Sven Nykvist naturalism. There is a wonderfully serene quality to the child's-eye view in the lighting of the picture, the filters giving it a bright hue that suggests the lead character, like us, being overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. It's a subtle but important aspect of the film key to our understanding the bigger picture. Finally, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel ensure that the film does not lapse into banality. Usually this is the type of film adaptation that could be incredibly self-indulgent and self-important, but the two manage to extinguish this for the most part, and What Maisie Knew is definitely one of the freshest and most genuinely interesting dramas I have seen over the past few years.

Now, while I thought What Maisie Knew was a great film that I liked very much and there might not be much to criticise negatively, there are nevertheless certain elements which did not go down well with me, especially given the context of their place in an otherwise great film. As I've said, I loved the cinematography and how the lighting helps depict the child's-eye perspective. However, the way that this interacts with some of the editing by Madeline Gavin, who, although obviously under direction from above, has injected the film with some slow-motion elements. Perhaps there's also high-speed photography involved, but there's a particular example in the film where things slow down and I became automatically aware that something 'dramatic' was going to happen. If it wasn't flagged up to me in such a gimmicky way, I would have found it interesting, but instead it undercuts the whole sequence. Although not often enough to detract from the whole movie, What Maisie Knew does have moments of wholly unnecessary gimmickry which wave at my like a big red flag.

What Maisie Knew has moments of gimmickry that clash and grate with the rest of the picture, waving out at me like a big red flag and undercutting the whole sequences in which they involved. Thankfully these moments are few and far between, because What Maisie Knew is an intelligent drama. It is a masterclass in acting, for Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Vanderham, but most especially Onata Aprile. I don't mean this as a disservice to her abilities, but she does for this film what Quvenzhane Wallis did last year for Beasts Of The Southern Wild, holding the whole film upon her shoulders. It's also a tightly scripted piece, the structure and the way the plot deconstructs 'family' dynamics is very interesting, and the majestic cinematography does much to put over the film's concept of the child's-eye perspective. Also, for the most part, directors McGehee and Siegel keep control of all the tangible elements, delivering a near uniformly solid movie. Finally, worth noting is the fact that it is a PG-rated movie, and proof that you don't need to push any of the swearing, sex, drugs and blood and guts buttons of the BBFC to put out a well-thought out, well-crafted movie.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.2/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cool (although I'm at the Scout Hall later, nice to have a day off and play some GTA 5!

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