A Comedy of Accidents – a review of What Maisie Knew

Back in 1897 when Henry James published his novel What Maisie Knew shared parenting was a hot topic, at least in New York. Today it may be a commonplace, but the impact it has on so many lives makes this new film from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel as contemporary as its modern setting.
The convoluted prose of the original has been replaced by clear modern dialogue and expressive acting to show just what happened when Julianne Moore’s fading rock singer Susanna and Steve Coogan’s inconstant art dealer Beale split up.
Caught up in a sequence of almost inevitable cause and effect are Maisie’s nanny Margo, played by Joanna Vanderham, and Alexander Skarsgård’s hapless Lincoln, Susanna’s new toy boy.
What is so fascinating about this drama is that the four principals act only according to their natures, nobody seems to stop to think about what they ought to do, the path of least resistance is always the one taken. Only Maisie, delightfully portrayed by Onata Aprile, is concerned about consequences, but there is little she can do to help.
Julianne Moore’s Susanna is the stand-out performance, utterly convincing as a talented musician, still vigorous if a bit frayed around the edges, keen to keep touring. The faded tattoos are a nice piece of observation. Lighting and low camera angles add to the impression of someone larger than life and not really on the same planet as anyone else. I can’t help feeling that the directors had a soft spot for her, when it would have been so easy to caricature her as egocentric and uncaring. Susanna means well, but is just not cut out for child rearing.
Beale is a slippery and plausible chameleon, with his eye on the main chance. Steve Coogan convinces in the role, ever optimistic, bluffing and smarming his way through life, careless or ignorant of the damage he leaves behind. It is curious how often Hollywood likes to make unsavoury characters English.
Joanna Vanderham uses her native Scots accent for cheerful, trusting, unsophisticated Margo. She is everything that Susanna is not, and very attached to Maisie. Lincoln is likewise quite unlike Beale, he distrusts ambition, and puts no value on wealth. He works in bar and seems to be a musician. Although Swedish by birth, Alexander Skarsgård has perfected his American accent and fits in perfectly here as a young man caught up in a whirlwind, and keeping his head.
The story is rather like a pinball machine, with Maisie the ball. Eventually things work out, everyone finds some kind of release as the conflicts fade, and Maisie, we hope, will grow up in happiness.

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