Film Review – What Maisie Knew (2013)

Pint-sized Maisie (Onata Aprile) has a skewed view of adult life, with slammed doors and whispered rows as much a part of her world as playmates and puzzles. Her parents are Beale (Steve Coogan), a globe-trotting, supercilious art dealer and Susanna (Julianne Moore), a rock star who fails to notice how heavily she is flirting with cliche as a rock star with panda eyes, messy hair and ever-present cigarettes. Their marriage has dissolved into open hostility as Susanna locks Beale out of their luxurious Manhattan apartment. They next meet at divorce court, where both seek full custody of Maisie.

The court instead orders joint custody in allotments of ten days for each parent, starting a heart-sinking cycle where both parents fail to keep up with their responsibility to pass the child onto the other, meaning the wide-eyed Maisie is left at school, in a bar, in the lobby of the apartments. Beale quickly ups the stakes, marrying Maisie’s somewhat timid but well-meaning nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and setting up house with her.

Fuelled by spite, Susanna retaliates with a marriage of convenience of her own, quickly wedding Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a naive bartender who soon develops a bond with Maisie. Both parents continue to throw emotional barbs at each other through their daughter, but as they both start spending more time out of the city for work, Maisie ends up increasingly left in the care of either Margo or Lincoln, or sometimes both.

Told entirely from the point of view of the neglected Maisie, this is a fragmented story made up of overheard snippets of conversation, claim and counterclaim. Completely convincing and beautifully nuanced, it becomes an involving affair, all the more effective for taking an unconventional route to your heartstrings and generally eschewing the kind of histrionics or easy sentimentality that could have come with this territory.

Based on Henry James’ 1897 novel of the same name, the story has been seamlessly moved from the 19th century to the present and from London to New York, suggesting there is something essentially timeless at the heart of this story.

Despite the presence of a quartet of first rate actors who nail all the details of their respective roles, the narrative’s exclusive focus on the child’s perspective of events means What Maisie Knew has to live or die on the performance of Aprile, who was aged just six at the time of filming. Thankfully her performance never hits a false note. Acting as the tale’s unlikely moral centre, she is remarkable as a child who maintains her essential goodness in the face of deplorable neglect and selfishness.


Film Review – The Look of Love (2013)

One of the UK’s most versatile and interesting directors, Michael Winterbottom, is a hard man to pigeonhole. Teaming again with Steve Coogan, whom he collaborated with on 24 Hour Party Peopleand the wonderful The Trip, his latest is a biopic of Paul Raymond, the controversial figure who became the ‘King of Soho’, pulling crowds with risque theatre at his nightclub and successfully branching out into the world of magazines with his bestselling lad’s mag, Men Only.

The action opens with a shaken Raymond (Coogan) pondering tragic events involving his daughter and driving around the district of London he rules with a small child, pointing out the business he owns, markers not just of his great wealth but also his striving for respectability. His rise was marked by his audacity and knack for turning setbacks to his advantage — when a newspaper condemns one of his theatrical productions for including “arbitrary displays of naked flesh”, he slaps the quote on the promotional poster as a selling point.

After leaving his family for his mistress, Richmond finds himself on the wrong end of an expensive divorce settlement (“I think you’ll find it’s the most expensive divorce settlement in UK history” he corrects reporters), but remains focused on empire building. Along the way he reconnects with his daughter Debbie (an excellent Imogen Poots), whose ambitions of stardom are not accommodated by the public and whose frail confidence is boosted by lashings of champagne and cocaine.

Moving from the swinging sixties to the darker onset of disco, Raymond continues to show an unerring sense for what the public want and gleefully pushes the boundaries with his magazines and live shows. He intuited what the public wanted was a taste of his hedonistic, womanising lifestyle. Yet behind the glamorous facade, there was a melancholy underside to his life, with Raymond’s inability to let go of his humble beginnings and his unusual relationship with his daughter forming the wounded heart of this impressive biopic.

Impeccable in its period detail and scored by the sweeping melodrama of Burt Bacharach songs,The Look of Love gives the always watchable Coogan meaty, complex material to wrestle with. Some will be disappointed at the way it brushes over the darker corners of his porn empire; Raymond had a way of deflecting difficult questions that the film also uses. Whether Raymond deserves such a sympathetic biography is debatable, but there is no questioning the aplomb with which Coogan and Winterbottom have brought this contradictory and ultimately quite sad figure to life.

Originally published at: Concrete Playground