Tag Archives: B+

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.

SIDE EFFECTS

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B+

It begins as a sort of cable-ready message movie about the dangers of modern drug-based medicine, but morphs into a clever thriller with so many twists that you’ll probably stop counting. That’s why Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” is so hard to review but so easy to recommend.

After a brief shot of a scene of domestic disorder, Scott Z. Burns’s script flashes back to the release of Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) from prison after serving a four-year term for insider-stock trading. He’s met by his mother (Ann Dowd) and wife Emily (Rooney Mara), both of whom greet him warmly. But of course his return to a normal life isn’t easy. Martin has trouble finding a position in his old financial stomping grounds, and to make matters worse, Emily suffers from bouts of depression, and during one episode she crashes her car into a parking-garage wall.

Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a sympathetic emergency-room physician, who suspects that she was trying to commit suicide and puts her on a series of antidepressants, including some that are part of a test program he’s getting paid to conduct on his patients. The side effects of the medication are considerable, however, and one of them takes a violent turn that even the most hardened viewer will find a visceral shock.

It wouldn’t be fair to spoil the picture by following the plot any further than this. Suffice it to say that what happens brings Banks under a cloud of suspicion of malpractice and leads him to track down Emily’s former therapist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who like him is involved in drug-testing trials. It’s his investigation of Emily’s past that leads to a series of revelations that take the narrative into increasingly dark directions. Twist follows twist, right up to a satisfying one at the close.

Soderbergh and Burns—who previously teamed up on both “The Informant!” and “Contagion”—manage to juggle the many strands of the labyrinthine plot with a mastery that actually recalls Hitchcock. To be sure, there are elements that you might wonder about in retrospect—why did Emily act as she does at the pivotal moment, for example, given what we know about her state of mind at the time when the denouement rolls around? But thrillers of this sort are bound to have a loose end or two, and what’s important is that it works beautifully as you’re watching it. Just be happy to be hooked for the duration and leave the nitpicking for later.

That injunction is easy to follow because Soderbergh, as usual acting as his own cameraman under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, proves so sneakily effective at sly misdirection. Innumerable directors have tried to pull of this sort of thing and failed, making his success all the more impressive. Soderbergh’s been reported as saying this will be his last film—at least for a while—and if that unhappily turns out to be the case, at least he’s going out on a high note.

The director’s intention to take a break may also explain his decision to cast several actors he’s worked with before, but whether or not that’s the case, the choices work. Tatum brings the same agreeably studly heft that served him so well in “Magic Mike” to this film as well, while Law manages to walk a fine balance between coming off as officious and self-absorbed on the one hand and, potentially, a hapless victim on the other; and Zeta-Jones gives Siebert the perfect air of arrogant confidence. Mara, a newcomer to the Soderbergh ranks, matches them with a turn that reflects both Emily’s fragility and her intensity, while Dowd brings genuine emotional heft to the role of a grief-stricken mother. All the lesser roles are handled with similar care, the production design (by Howard Cummings) is unobtrusively on target, Mary Ann Bernard’s editing keeps matters moving crisply while allowing for ample atmosphere, and Thomas Newman’s score is quietly supportive.

There’s a crafty, machine-like structure to “Side Effects” that recalls a picture like Harold Becker’s underrated “Malice” (1993)—which also involved the medical establishment–but Soderbergh’s take is far less glossy and snarky. It’s both grim and enjoyable—two things that might not seem to go together but in this case absolutely do.