Thursday, 30 May 2013

Week Five - What Maisie Knew, E Street Cinema

What Maisie Knew, E Street Cinema
What Maisie Knew Poster.jpgI wasn’t at all certain that I really wanted to watch this film. On the one hand, the description I had of it suggested a harrowing story about a sweet little girl suffering at the hands of her horrible, selfish parents. The pain of my own present separation from my kids makes viewing or thinking of anything even remotely comparable almost unbearable. On the other hand it was free. So I went along. The cast of adults were part of the appeal: Juliette Moore is usually great, the Viking vampire from True Blood (Alexander Skarsgård) has a real presence and I’ve liked Steve Coogan since his appearances on The Day Today in the early 1990s (though his serious roles have usually been less successful). The story follows the separation and subsequent activities of a New York couple and their thoughtful young daughter. It never really explains why the parents break up; though their later selfish and thoughtless behaviour towards Maisie suggests reasons (i.e. they are both exceptionally unlikeable). They do show glimmers of humanity and affection early on, before wrecking the appearance later, which also makes us suspicious whenever any other character does something decent.
It might be a good film to make divorcing couples watch as a cautionary tale (‘How not to act in Divorce’). I doubt whether it would make anybody reconsider the divorce itself, but as a powerful list of things that divorcing parents should not do (bad-mouth former spouse to the child, use the child to get back at the ex, let child find out about new boyfriend when he picks her up from school, disappear for long periods and leave child with new step-parents etc), it might at least encourage basic humanity. Perhaps one drawback of using the film like this might be that no divorcing parents would think they could ever be as bad and thus it might instil complacency. When the film starts the mother seems loving, but she quickly shows herself to be a horror. In this respect at least, there is some character development. The dad’s decency lasts a little longer, but still falls by the wayside. This makes is expect everybody to be similarly self-centred, but there were flickers of happiness and wholesomeness, just not from the people who should have been decent. Happiness isn’t elusive in the film and my pre-film fears of a relentless dirge of misery were eventually proven misplaced. But what does happen is that the happiness of day is always followed by the pain of night (usually literally). The step-parents are the most decent, affectionate people in it, but even with them we know that it probably won’t continue indefinitely. The young actress playing Maisie might be criticised a little for underplaying her role - she rarely shows outward signs of sadness - but this made the poor behaviour of her parents all the more affecting. We already knew the bad they were doing, and that it must be damaging Maisie’s soul, so the absence of histrionics simply added to the pathos.
In the fifth-century BC, an Athenian playwright called Phrynichus put on a tragedy showing the sack of Athens’ ally, Miletus. The Athenians were distressed, so on that level at least the play was a success. But the play was on a topic too close to the Athenians’ hearts and it turned out that the people were so distraught that they fined Phrynichus. It was decreed that tragedies should stick to mythological themes in future (which is the case for all of the tragedies that survived to the present). As a modern I should be aghast at this Athenian censoriousness, but actually they did have a point. What Maisie Knew is an effective and moving film, but it was also two of the worst cinematic hours of my life. In the end, although not as miserable as I anticipated, it is still not recommended viewing for anybody already feeling depressed and missing their children. Ultimately the film subverted the entire reason for my cultural calendar and the keeping of this blog - as a distraction from my homesickness.

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