What Maisie Knew (US - BD RA)
Jonathan checks out the recent drama shown from a child's perspective...
A contemporary reimaginging of Henry James' novel, What Maisie Knew tells the story of a captivating little girls struggle for grace in the midst of her parents' bitter custody battle. Told through the eyes of the title's heroine, Maisie navigates the ever-widening turmoil of her world with a six-year-old's innocence, charm and generosity of spirit. (Adapted from the Millennium Entertainment synopsis)
What Maisie Knew sounds like the type of movie I'd avoid like the plague. Most movies that focus on young children make the kid overly precocious or go down the equally cloying road of having the kid be wise beyond their years. Usually the kids will be saying the darndest things. Add a layer of melodramatic bickering adults on top of that and it sounds like a recipe for "no thanks". I am happy to report that What Maisie Knew manages the unlikely and shattered my cynical preconceptions. This is largely thanks to the young actress at the center of it all, Onata Aprile. She perfectly channels that unwavering kindness and lack of inhibition that only a child could demonstrate, and the filmmakers let her be that child. She also has a gift for portraying emotions without having to say anything. Her performance is filled with wonderful nuances and subtleties that you can't really instruct out of a person.
The screenplay wisely sticks with Maisie for the entirety of the runtime. She is in every scene and we are only privy to the actions and words that unfold around her. Aside from being a unique perspective, it also keeps the movie present and focused on the main character that we care most about. The movie also seems to stay constantly in tune with Maisie's emotional state. The music will always accompany her emotions fittingly. The soundtrack is most lively when she is playing outdoors and being herself. Aside from Aprile, there are wonderful supporting performances all around. Her fighting parents are played by Steven Coogan (Beale) and Julianne Moore (Susanna). Beale is the workaholic father type and Susanna is a rock star that is past her prime. It's the kind of couple you'll really only ever see in a movie, but both performances are so pitch perfect that I almost didn't care. They don't get a long and when they separate, Beale ties the not with their nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and Susanna tries to match his actions by marrying a young bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard). Vanderham is excellent as Margo and handles her emotional scenes with ease. Skarsgard plays a bit of an airhead, but he manages to be very charming. It's a fun departure from his usual roles.
The parents stick to their busy schedules and are rarely around, so Margo and Lincoln often end up taking care of Maisie. As a result, Margo and Lincoln find their paths crossing from time to time. It just so happens they're both attractive young people who are caught up in unhappy new marriages, and here is where the screenplay falls into the kind of lame territory that it seemed to transcend in its handling of Maisie. I wish the screenplay just flirted with the idea of a romance between the characters instead of indulging in wish fulfillment. Thankfully it is really just a footnote in a story that is otherwise dedicated to its title character. Watching as a child is neglected time and time again can make for a difficult sit, but What Maisie Knew has its heart in the right place and never feels exploitive. The ending finds a realistically uplifting note that feels true to what came before it and avoids being saccharine.
What Maisie Knew was shot on 35mm and it looks great. Like many modern comedies, it has that warm push to it where every scene feels slightly soaked in a sunny orange color. It fits. Here it is also accompanied by some blooming whites (see Julianne Moore's skin in the third cap). The resulting look isn't exactly natural, but it is a good match for the delicate and sensitive directing. Sometimes the blooming effect gives objects an unattractive shimmer, but this seems entirely due to stylistic decisions and not the transfer process. The effect also gives everything a soft appearance, so don't expect the same level of detail as your average 35mm transfer. Colors and skin tones do look substantially more natural during outdoor scenes, but there is still a slight warmness to them. Black levels feel rich and rarely seem to be crushing any intended detail. Grain is consistent and never succumbs to digital artefacting. In fact, I didn't spot any worrisome compression marks throughout, which is surprising for a BD-25. It probably helps that there is only one audio track on the disc.
This disc comes with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, something you don't see too often on Blu-ray releases these days. While it is a lossless format just like DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, it is usually quieter. This is most notable on blockbuster films, but for the quaint dramatic purposes of What Maisie Knew the difference is almost negligible. I didn't have to adjust my volume at all from a previous movie that had a DTS-HD Master Audio Track. As with most dramas, there isn't too much going on with the sound mix. Most of the movie is dialogue kept to the front and center channels, but Maisie overhears a lot of off screen arguments. These muffled disputes are given some appropriate directionality. Mostly the extra channels are used for ambient noises, most notable during a trip to the park.
The highlight of the track for me is the music from Nick Urata. The score is brilliantly in tune with Maisie's mindset, perfectly accompanying the screenplays decision to remain focused on her. When things are looking bad between her parents, the music reflects her fears nicely without ever being overwrought. When things are peaceful and Maisie is at play the soundtrack comes to live with beautiful piano music and a high soothing female vocalist singing above it. At these times, the score completely envelops the viewer from every direction. It's gorgeous. Outside the score there are some songs made for the movie. Julianne Moore is a rock star in the movie and there are a couple of scenes where we hear a good portion of her songs. She recorded them with the band The Kills. It isn't my cup of tea, but the music sounds crisp and dynamic in this mix. There is one final music choice for the film's closing scene that really didn't do it for me. Lucy Schwartz's 'Feeling of Being' isn't a bad song at all, but pair with a child running in slow motion and it becomes awfully corny. I would've preferred to hear how Urata would close the movie out.
There's only a couple of special features here. The first is an Audio Commentary with Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel. They share an interview and much of it is spent reminiscing about the shooting process and interacting with the actors. They consider themselves very lucky to have found Onata Aprile, and they sometimes talk about the things she did while the cameras were rolling that they never asked her to do. It isn't the most technical track out there, but if you'd like to hear about the ideas that went into the story and what it was like to work with the cast, this is a worthwhile track.
There are four Deleted Scenes (HD, 07:21). The first shows Maisie interacting with a locksmith who is fixing a broken lock. She talks to him about a time her mom had a locksmith change the lock so her father couldn't home. It feels unnecessary but Aprile is good here. Next up is a quick montage of Susanna and Maisie at a photo shoot for her music career. There's some footage of Maisie hanging out with one of her neighbors and her new puppy. It's awfully cute but doesn't add much to the story. The last deleted scene is a full music video performance from Susanna's band that was shown in snippets in the movie.
What Maisie Knew cleverly avoids the many pitfalls that usually accompany movies about children. Its greatest feat is that Maisie feels like a real kid. The filmmakers wisely chose to keep every scene of the movie focused on her, and the direction has a delicacy and grace that feels appropriate. That treatment, paired with the young Onata Aprile's nuanced performance, make for a wonderfully realized child character that you rarely ever see on screen. Unfortunately, the same dedication was not given to the supporting adult characters. This Blu-ray release from Millennium Entertainment offers a strong AV presentation. There's only a couple extras here, but they are worth your time if you're a fan.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 13th August 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Director's Commentary, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Cast: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Joanna Vanderham, Onata Aprile
Length: 98 minutes
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