'What Maisie Knew' finds modern truths in Victorian satire

What Maisie Knew
Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Maisie (Onata Aprile) in the modern retelling of Henry James satirical novel on bad parenting "What Maisie Knew."
Image courtesy Millennium Entertainment

The modern phenomenon of divorce is examined through Victorian satire in "What Maisie Knew," a new film opening this weekend in the Twin Cities.

Attitudes toward marriage and divorce were very different when Henry James wrote "What Maisie Knew" in the waning years of the 19th century, co-director Scott McGehee said.

"He was at a dinner party, and heard the story of a divorce," McGehee said. "And this couple who was divorcing was going to be sharing custody of their kid. And that for him at that time was the most outlandish thing he had ever heard of. He thought it was so crazy; such a terrible thing to do to a kid, and that was his inspiration for writing the novel."

James' satirical novel skewered irresponsible parents and dysfunctional families. Fast forward a century and the joint custody James thought outlandish is now widely accepted.

"But what we found kind of remarkable is how the characters and the kind of situation he created was still kind of relevant to a story being told today," McGehee said.

David Siegel, Scott McGehee
David Siegel and Scott McGehee came to the Twin Cities for the local premiere of their film "What Maisie Knew." Neither went to film school, but working together for two decades they have co-directed five feature films.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

McGehee and his directing partner David Siegel tell a 21st-century version of "What Maisie Knew" through the eyes of a six-year old New Yorker whose parents both use her as a weapon during the final skirmishes of their crumbling marriage. They are so intent on fighting they are often oblivious to her presence.

"What Maisie Knew" is at times disturbing, moving and funny. At moments in the film it's impossible not to feel angry at the characters.

Despite the parents claims that they only want the best for Maisie, their selfishness undermines their credibility. Soon after the divorce, both shirk their parental duties in favor of their careers and leave Maisie to the erratic attentions of their new spouses.

The film boasts an international all-star cast cast, with Julianne Moore as the mother, and British comedian Steve Coogan as the father. "True Blood" heartthrob Alexander Skarsgard plays Maisie's new stepfather and Scots TV actor Joanne Vanderham is her new stepmother.

That part of the casting was relatively easily. The film's success largely depends on the actress playing Maisie, and finding the right person was their biggest task, co-director David Siegel said.

"That really didn't come together until very late in the process," he said. "Meaning, three weeks before shooting we actually found Onata Aprile, and it was getting pretty dicey there."

Aprile is a 6-year-old grade-schooler whose performance has impressed critics. While many candidates were considered, Siegel said, only Onata had the qualities they needed.

"The thing that we were looking for most from the child was a kind of stillness that would allow us to believe that we were getting inside of her head to some degree," Siegel said. "It's not a dialog-heavy part for her, but it's a heavy performance part that way."

The young Aprile has a way of staring into the camera with an unsettling mixture of innocence and accusation. Siegel and McGehee use her to great effect.

Having co-directors on a movie set is unusual. However, McGehee says it's just the way he and Siegel have always done it, over 20 years and five features.

"We started out as friends, and decided to try making films together," McGehee said. "David had a background in fine arts and I was going to be an academic when we first started. But I think because we didn't have any training, we didn't know better and we kind of invented a way to work together that was our own."

Maisie and Lincoln
Maisie (Onata Aprile) is surprised, and a little pleased, when she discovers Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) is her stepfather, in "What Maisie Knew."
Image courtesy Millennium Entertainment

McGehee and Siegel are feeling pretty good about "What Maisie Knew." If nothing else they do take pleasure in knowing the bad behavior on the screen will probably make a lot of people feel better about their own parenting skills.

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