Adapted from a turn of the century Henry James novel, the film is adeptly adapted for modern times.
The story is quite simple, two high class New York City parents decide to call it quits, throwing them and their young daughter into the aftermath of court battles and rebound relationships. What sets this apart from the myriad of family dramas that already exist is that nearly all the action is seen only through the eyes of said daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile). Of course, audience members will be able to understand the chaos around her better that she does but through her the audience sees what she takes in, whether or not she can comprehend it. This means that much of the film is put squarely on the shoulders of the very young Aprile but her performance is the highlight of the film.
What directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel do well is to create an atmosphere that reflects the complexity of a divorce but also the simplicity of it as seen through Maisie’s eyes. Both parents, Susanna (Julianna Moore), an aging rock star looking to get her career back on track and Beal (Steve Coogan), a workaholic art dealer, are loving parents but become too wrapped up in their own post-marriage salvation than in actually understanding what their daughter needs. First, Beale marries Maisie’s longstanding nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) in a misguided attempt at stability, or maybe its just good old-fashioned testosterone. This leads Susanna to also have a quickie marriage to the similarly much younger Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), even telling Maisie “I married him for you.”
Many will view the parents as borderline negligent, and while that may actually be true, the purpose of the film isn’t to condemn the parents. While they make some terrible decisions about raising their daughter, many are due to the realities of their own lives. Their priorities may be wholly misguided but McGehee and Siegel never let the audience doubt their love for their daughter. It’s just that that love isn’t always enough.
While the film creates a fluid atmosphere as the four adults in Maisie’s life drift in and out (and in the case of her real parents, more out than in), it could be less predictable. Perhaps for those better able to understand what’s happening than Maisie, that predictability is built into the tragedy of the story. But, it’s still a film and great film usually thrives on some surprising elements. Admittedly, however, this won’t be an issue for most as the acting is uniformly great, especially that of the aforementioned Onata Aprile but also from Vanderham and Skarsgård, the latter of which who plays sharply against type as a mild mannered bartender who is slowly drawn into the chaos of Maisie’s predicament.
In the end, it may not be a staggering achievement in depicting torn apart families but it’s surely a solid entry into the canon.
Review: 4 out of 5