Tag Archives: B+

STORIES WE TELL

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B+

Sarah Polley’s third film—following the dramas “Away from Her” and “Take This Waltz”—is a very personal documentary constructed in a way that raises questions of narrative truth while telling a poignant family saga. Cinematically “Stories We Tell” is like a painting in which the subject is portrayed simultaneously from different angles. And by the end the film itself comes to be seen as just one more perspective—Polley’s—as individual and incomplete as all the others.

The film starts out as an effort by Polley to paint a portrait of her mother Diane, who died when the director was eleven in 1990. At first it appears a fairly conventional piece, made up of what appear to be home movies and excerpts from interviews with Polley’s father Michael and her siblings John, Mark, Susy and Joanna, as well as a few other relatives and friends, whom she invites to talk about Diane, a vivacious stage actress, from the beginning, as she puts it. They respond, some more reluctantly than others, but there’s a peculiarity from nearly the start, since Michael’s remarks are divided between some that he delivers extemporaneously seated at a kitchen table while others are recorded in a studio as he reads from a prepared text and is occasionally prodded by his daughter to provide another take on a line or two.

But things get stranger still when Polley interviews actor Geoff Bowles, with whom Diane co-starred in a play, and asks him about persistent rumors that he, not Michael, was her biological father. He denies it, but Polley takes up the subject again when she talks with Harry Gulkin, a producer who knew both Diane and Geoff during the play’s run. That leads to revelations that come as a bit of a shock both to Polley and her relatives but also to the audience, indicating that Diane’s life was more complicated than even those closest to her knew.

“Stories We Tell” ignores the usual trappings of a conventional documentary. It doesn’t report much about Diane’s childhood, and doesn’t bother detailing anything about her first marriage until very late in the running-time. Even then it doesn’t explain much about how the family came together in the aftermath of her divorce. Nor does it fit easily into the personal essay form, because while in a sense Polley goes in search of her roots, in a curious way she remains incidental to the fragmented biography of her mother she manages to create. And even its very documentary character is called into question when footage of Polley shooting what has been passing as quasi-archival material occurs, showing that these are actually newly-filmed sequences featuring actors and rendered (by cinematographer Iris Ng) to look “authentic.” And, of course, though Michael Polley is certainly who he claims to be, the fact that he, like his wife, was an actor—as well as his scrupulous preparation of his narrative about Diane—make it clear that his contribution isn’t exactly spontaneous.

As the title indicates, though “Stories We Tell” is about Diane Polley, it’s also about Sarah, and Michael, and Harry Gulkin, and everyone else who appears in the course of it. In the end it’s like a hall of mirrors, in which the images reflect on one another in distorted, incomplete form. And its real subject isn’t a single person or even a cast of related people; it’s the nature of storytelling itself. The result is an absorbing exercise not only in documentary excavation but in narrative construction.

WHAT MAISIE KNEW

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B+

Henry James’s 1897 novel provides the inspiration for “What Maisie Knew,” but the story of a young child shuttled between warring parents—both biological and surrogate—remains as potent as ever. Transposed to contemporary New York City, the film, written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, retains James’s canny decision to relate the tale from the perspective of the girl, with the adults surrounding her seen only in bits and pieces. The tactic works as well on screen as on the page, capturing the uncertainty that a youngster must feel when the people supposedly devoted to her welfare act in irresponsible ways.

The filmmakers were fortunate indeed to find Onata Aprile to play the six-year old Maisie. With her big, wide eyes and subtly expressive face, she’s physically perfect for the part, but what’s most impressive is the naturalness she brings to it. There’s not a hint of exaggeration or playing to the camera in anything she does—even during a final confrontation scene with Julianne Moore as her high-strung mother, her reactions are minimalist rather than obvious. That’s due, of course, not just to Aprile’s ease before the camera, but to the care with which McGehee and Siegel dealt with her on set. But whether the performance is attributable primarily to the girl’s innate ability or masterful coaching from the directors, it’s what grounds the film and gives it such emotional resonance.

That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast doesn’t contribute significantly to the picture’s success. Moore is fiercely compelling as Susanna, Maisie’s mother, a singer whose bohemian lifestyle and professional ambition lead her to become an on-and-off parent who treats her daughter more as a possession than an object of devotion. Much the same can be said of Steve Coogan as her father Beale, an art dealer whose travels keep him away from the family’s plush apartment for long stretches and who overcompensates by spoiling the child when he’s around. The raucous rows the two continuously engage in—quickly tempered when Maisie wanders into their presence—make it clear that their marriage isn’t long for this world. In such a contentious environment, the girl’s sole real comfort comes from her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), a pretty, vibrant blonde whose concern as she watches the household deteriorate is evident.

When Susanna and Beale part ways, it sets the stage for a bitter custody dispute over Maisie, but the court’s decision dividing the child’s time between them doesn’t increase either’s willingness really to sacrifice on her behalf. Instead they remarry, choosing partners who will act as caregivers to her: Beale weds Margo and then disappears for long stretches as before, while Susanna marries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a handsome, laid-back bartender who initially seems an unlikely stepfather but proves to have real concern for Maisie. As Susanna and Beale continue their wayward parenting ways, Margo and Lincoln—often thrown together on Maisie’s behalf—not only deepen their affection for the girl, but are attracted to one another as well. Both Vanderham and Skarsgard are excellent here, playing their parts with a vulnerability that indicates that while Margo and Lincoln are certainly more dependable than the guardians they’re replacing, they’re also flawed and capable of making mistakes and putting their own needs above the child’s. In other words, they’re human too.

While Doyne and Cartwright follow the narrative arc of the book fairly closely in the early going, they depart from it substantially at the close, reducing the character of Maisie’s new governess Mrs. Wix (Paddy Croft) to a mildly amusing joke and simplifying the conclusion about the young Maisie’s choice of whom to stay with. But though the ending is more conventionally happy than the one James contrived, it still retains some of the ambiguity the novel conveyed about the girl’s future.

“What Maisie Knew” is shot by Giles Nuttgens with a naturalistic grace that mirrors Aprile’s performance, while the production design by Kelly McGehee captures nicely the upper-class milieu. Their craft contributions, along with Nick Urata’s supportive score and Madeleine Gavin’s expert editing, help bolster the underlying dread that a viewer can’t help but feel about the child’s welfare as the adults responsible for her go about their business, often oblivious to her needs. Though Maisie copes as best she can in every circumstance, the sense of dependence that comes out in moments of crisis is palpable.

One might compare “What Maisie Knew” to “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the Robert Benton drama that swept the Oscars in 1979. This is the better film, more subtle and less manipulative, and placing the emphasis where it belongs, on the child rather than on the parents fighting over her (or him). And it inevitably makes you think about the millions of youngsters who live in circumstances less materially and emotionally supportive than Maisie’s, but face a similar, and often worse, familial reality. It’s a chilling subtext to McGehee and Siegel’s film that leaves one—as James’s book does—with an unsettled feeling, despite the apparent sense of closure.