It is rare to find a movie that packs such an emotional punch while maintaining its subtlety, integrity, and supported by gritty, superb performances that, amazingly, never resort to cliche or melodrama. What Maisie Knew, a retelling of Henry James’ novel, is just that kind of rare masterpiece, which makes it one of the best movies of the year.
The plot is familiar to, or at least resonates with, everyone — whether it’s people who have come from broken homes, people who have lived with manipulative, selfish people, or parents dealing with guilt for whatever reason when raising their children. The directing choices helped to harness the emotional weight, while not heavy-handedly telling its viewers exactly what to feel or who to side with. It was a pleasure to be able to experience this type of film, with all of its emotional implications, without the saccharine, over-the-top viewing experience that often accompanies these types of films, instead smartly allowing its viewers to truly feel the realness of the story.
Instead, the directors allow the entire story to rest on the shoulders of their cast — luckily, every single cast member gives an awards-worthy performance. What Maisie Knew truly becomes their movie and is a standing testament to the impact of great, out-of-the-box casting.
At the centre is the very, very impressive Onata Aprile, as the titular character. At only 7 years old, Aprile is made to anchor all of the scenes, often without dialogue. To say that she was a brilliant revelation would be an understatement to the depth and talent that she exuded in the film. Her ability to act so well both in tandem with her co-stars and alone further highlights her emotional maturity and high acting instinct and intellect.
The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Julianne Moore puts on a great performance as the faded rock star mother with plenty of emotional baggage. She ably portrays this highly unlikeable character with enough layers to make you feel both disgust and empathy with her, regardless of how incomprehensibly awful her behaviour may be. Steve Coogan ably plays his part as her foil, Maisie’s charming but ultimately emotionally unavailable father. There is a sense with both of them that, while their parenting skills are severely lacking, and while they make terrible decisions that impact their young daughter, they do still love her in their own way. This brings up one of the greatest complexities delved into in the film and is explored thanks to their great performances.
Maybe even more revelatory than Maisie’s parents are the performances by Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham as their new partners and, ultimately, Maisie’s allies and advocates. Their connection to the little girl, the tackling of their emotional dilemmas, and ultimately their ability to inject light into the film while remaining undeniably realistic and non-cheesy.
What Maisie Knew is brilliant all-around, from its gut-wrenching realism, awards-worthy performances, and its consistent and well-thought out plot. While its premise could have easily become heavy-handed, you find a film that is so painstakingly crafted by the writer, directors and actors that it is instead, to its great success, a subtle masterpiece that should be this generation’s go-to film about the complexities of family love and bonds.
The plot of Adore had the potential to be either a guilty pleasure or a scathing, psychological commentary. With a clueless director at the hem, Adore instead confusingly took the worst parts of each and melded them together: poorly plotted sleaze, incomprehensible monotonous scenes, and longing, soulful glances. While The Great Gatsby’s non-cohesion was inoffensive and simply puzzling, Adore‘s seeming lack of desire to even attempt to create a believable world was irritating and offensive.
First, while the plot of the film had an innate creepiness to it, that wasn’t a problem. The problem was that none of it was explained or contextualized. Second, none of the characters experienced a character arc — nor did they realize the consequences or implications of their actions except for a few cursory tears they shed. Frankly, I would rather they either did this or go in the complete opposite direction and embrace the unconventional relationships in a seedy way. Third, the dialogue was horrendous – I can count on one hand the conversations that actually sounded like they could have occurred in real life. Fourth, the acting did very little to elevate the crappy material, with the actors laughably injecting as much pouty-seriousness into their extremely thin roles, which simply highlighted the futility of the entire endeavour.
Adore is a disturbing yet ultimately shallow film that is burdened by trying to be so many things it is not. It tries to be meaningful, artsy and the perfect acting vehicle. Instead, it feels more like poorly written chick-lit with pointless directing and boring, confused acting. It is the worst film of the year.
The Butler would be a perfect example of a movie in which a fantastic plot is let down by poor, heavy-handed screenwriting and directing. At its core, the memoirs of an African-American man who served American presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan set alongside the civil rights movement and important civil rights events during that time is vibrant, interesting and haunting.
Indeed, there were some points in the film where the greatness of this story is both seen and felt acutely, but they were few and far between. More often than not, the scenes felt annoyingly heavy-handed in terms of dialogue, narration and directing. While the events depicted in the film would obviously elicit a strong emotional response, it felt like the film demanded you feel that way.
Apart from this, the movie failed to live up to expectations because it failed to surpass a hurdle often seen in biographical movies – the challenge of telling a cohesive rather than an episodic story. This led to the film feeling disjointed. The revolving door of well-known actors and actresses playing these iconic parts also added to the disconnection from the story. Somehow, the interplay of all these famous actors took away from the events happening on-screen and the emotional weight behind the movie. It also didn’t help that their appearances on-screen seemed to signify events in themselves, which detracted from the events actually occurring in the movie. While other movies have made it work, this one didn’t.
The acting mostly ranged from great to decent. Forest Whitaker, who played Cecil Gaines, and David Oyelowo, who played his son Louis, both put on great performances. In their limited roles, the actors and actresses who played American presidents and first ladies were all decent. Though none particularly stood out, no one was given much to work with either. While Oprah Winfrey, as his wife Gloria, is getting all the Oscar buzz, and as the frontrunner, I found her performance to be cloying and lacking. She wasn’t terrible by any means. But the averageness of her performance was more glaring given the surrounding hype.
The Butler is an emotionally evocative film with plenty of historical gravity behind it. But while certain scenes or sequences were breathtaking, The Butler mostly felt like an overly long, rambling memoir. A reliance on the cheap thrills of name recognition and uncomfortable current political agenda-setting also added to the overall chunkiness of the film saved only by its emotional, well-meaning pull and decent performances from some of its star-studded cast.