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What Maisie Knew: Blu-ray + DVD Review

What Maisie Knew (2013) movie poster What Maisie Knew

Theatrical Release: May 3, 2013 / Running Time: 99 Minutes / Rating: R

Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel / Writers: Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright (screenplay), Henry James (novel)

Cast: Julianne Moore (Susanna Nun), Steve Coogan (Beale), Alexander Skarsgård (Lincoln), Joanna Vanderham (Margo), Onata Aprile (Maisie Elizabeth Beale), Sadie Rae Lee (Zoe), Jesse Spadaccini (Martin), Diana Garcia Soto (Cecilia), Amelia Campbell (Ms. Baine), Maddie Corman (Ms. Fairchild-Tetenbaum), Paddy Croft (Mrs. Wix)

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Born in New York City in 1843, Henry James moved to England at age 20 and began writing novels shortly thereafter. Celebrated for their realism, his best-known works include The Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw, The Wings of the Dove, and The Ambassadors. James' fiction has been adapted for film and television over a hundred times,
beginning with the 1933 Leslie Howard romantic fantasy Berkeley Square based partially on a posthumously-published unfinished novel. James' 119th and latest credit on IMDb is a rarity, something other than a period costume piece. The independent drama What Maisie Knew adapts James' 1897 novel of the same name, but it sets the story in present-day New York City.

Maisie Elizabeth Beale (Onata Aprile) is a sweet girl of approximately Kindergarten age who is largely left to take care of herself amidst her parents' increasing bickering. Susanna (Julianne Moore), the mother, is a rock singer whose work requires her to hit the road for tours. Dad (Steve Coogan) is a businessman who also frequently travels. Their non-marital partnership is crumbling, setting up a nasty custody battle. Neither is a terribly fit parent or a great influence on their child; these days, each does little to hide their animosity for the other.

"What Maisie Knew" tells the story of separation from the point-of-view of young Maisie Elizabeth Beale (Onata Aprile).

To Mom's dismay, the court decides on a joint custody. Mr. Beale, a British art dealer, moves out and puts together a nice bedroom in his new apartment with help from Margo (Joanna Vanderham), Maisie's loving nanny, a Scottish immigrant who soon becomes Dad's new wife. Looking to even the playing field in the ongoing legal wrangling, Susanna swiftly remarries as well, finding her own significantly younger spouse in Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender.

The flawed priorities of Maisie's parents begin to overshadow their biological significance. With Mom repeatedly having to recklessly pawn her off on someone else and Dad being outside the country for much of the time, Maisie comes to value her time spent separately with Margo and Lincoln, who each take enough interest to win their stepdaughter's affections.

What Maisie Knew resembles a modern-day Kramer vs. Kramer told from the child's point of view. It's an utterly arresting and frequently heartbreaking tale that finds you sympathizing with the titular child and wishing her a better life. Critical to the film's success is the disarmingly genuine, natural lead performance of Onata Aprile, a girl just five years old at the time of filming. The directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Bee Season, The Deep End, Uncertainty) avoids any temptation to encourage precociousness from the child actress. When implemented right, that very quality has historically commanded notice, both from Kramer's Justin Henry to Beasts of the Southern Wild's Quvenzhané Wallis, each of whom number among the Academy's youngest acting nominees. But such an approach wouldn't be right for the understated, authentic drama that McGehee and Siegel want to present.

Susanna (Julianne Moore) enjoys a tender moment with her daughter. Mr. Beale (Steve Coogan) shares some condescension with his ex's new husband while picking up Maisie.

Getting strong use out of a sharp screenplay from the unlikely duo of Nancy Doyne ("Tales from the Crypt") and Carroll Cartwright (the 2000 bomb Dungeons & Dragons), the directors craft a heartfelt film that avoids the usual simplistic storytelling devices. Each absentee parent means well and neither is more clearly at fault.
They have good instincts, but ones that are too easily overshadowed by job demands and responsibilities. The movie avoids broadly vilifying these parents, even managing to make grandiose lapses in judgment (like Susanna dropping Maisie off at a restaurant where Lincoln isn't working at) feel in character and not like a lazy way of advancing the plot.

Aprile's performance, which isn't flashy enough to elicit accolades months from now, is complemented in every direction by compelling turns. Moore isn't an actress you really see playing an arm-tattooed rocker, but she is believable in the role. Coogan's forte is comedy, but he effortlessly strikes the right tone here to produce intended reactions. I haven't seen enough of Skarsgård or anything of Vanderham to appreciate them beforehand, but each young talent makes a meaningful impression here.

It's an unfortunate reality that good art doesn't always make for good business. With an estimated production budget of $6 million, What Maisie Knew is not an expensive film. Still, it has a long way to go before approaching profitability, having grossed just over $1 million from Millennium Entertainment's slow, limited May theatrical rollout. The film will get a chance to reach a wider audience on Tuesday, when Millennium releases the film to DVD and the Blu-ray + DVD combo pack reviewed here.

What Maisie Knew: Blu-ray Disc + DVD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: August 13, 2013
Two single-sided, single-layered discs (BD-25 & DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Blue Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as standalone DVD ($28.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Blu-ray's 2.40:1 presentation is good. Lightly grainy by design and a bit soft on occasion, it also features a few minor scratches and specks new films generally don't, but the transfer satisfies nonetheless. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack doesn't stand out, but it does a nice job of distributing crisp dialogue and befitting music. Both the DVD, whose presentation clearly suffers by comparison, and the Blu-ray offer English SDH and Spanish subtitles as well as a plain Dolby 2.0 version of the English soundtrack.

As Susanna, Julianne Moore rocks out in this deleted music video. Critical praise from Globe and Mail features in the graciously included "What Maisie Knew" theatrical trailer.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Each disc's extras begin with an audio commentary by directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel. They're experienced enough to not be completely captivating or speak non-stop. Nonetheless, their remarks about allowing Moore and Coogan to improvise fights, directing a young child,

Joanna Vanderham's crippling fear of puppets, finding suitable Manhattan filming locations, and qualifying for New York tax breaks, are fitting company to the film.

Kicking off the all-HD video bonuses, deleted scenes (7:20) find Maisie chatting with a locksmith, doing a photo shoot with her mother, and roaming around the city on her own. The fourth and final of this out-of-order lot (which the DVD fails to assign a "Play All" option) offers a basic concert music video for Susanna, allowing Julianne Moore to rock out more than she does in the movie. There's no commentary to explain why these were cut.

The Previews submenu adds What Maisie Knew's trailer (2:15) to individual access to those that the discs automatically play at insertion, for Upside Down, Stuck in Love, The Iceman, and Killing Season. Other studios should follow Millennium's example on how to do trailers, because the studio has the art form perfected.

The menu plays quietly-scored silent clips from the film under a creamy orange bar of listings. The Blu-ray regrettably doesn't support bookmarks or resume playback.

The two discs, given nearly-identical full-color labels, claim opposite sides of the standard Blu-ray case, which is topped by a slipcover and holds no inserts.

Young bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), Susanna's new husband, prepares Maisie an egg breakfast she doesn't want to eat. Maisie (Onata Aprile) enjoys a moment on the beach with her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

What Maisie Knew provides a poignant child's eye view of separation. Authentic and stirring, this well-made indie drama is well worth a look. Millennium Entertainment's reasonably-priced, unlikely combo pack gives the film a basic but adequate release.

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Reviewed August 10, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2013 Millennium Entertainment, Fortissimo Films, Red Crown Productions, Charles Weinstock Productions, William Teitler Productions,
120 dB films, 10th Hole Productions, Koda Entertainment, Dreambridge Films, Image Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.