What Maisie Knew & Elysium (+ film festivals)

August 24, 2013
Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 9.47.52 AM

When Henry James published What Maisie Knew in 1897, the straight-laced mores of the Victorian era were already beginning to unravel. The Edwardian period would be more permissive, more prepared to confront social and sexual issues that had previously been taboo.

James had a talent for describing scenes of great moral complexity without condoning deviations from the norm. His late novels deal obsessively with the subject of adultery, but always as a scandal. It would take D.H.Lawrence to turn sexuality into a cosmic force that could not be contained by the bonds of matrimony.

What Maisie Knew is the story of a little girl who is buffeted back and forth between dysfunctional parents, following a nasty divorce. While heaping insults on each other, both parents remarry. The irony is that the new partners prove to be more devoted and affectionate to Maisie. They draw together as a couple while their egocentric spouses continue to shirk responsibility.

The problem, for James, was that the liaison between these surrogate parents was completely illegitimate. The only character allowed to care for Maisie with a fierce, disinterested love was an elderly nanny, Mrs. Wix.

In updating James’s story for the 21st century, David Siegel and Scott McGehee have shifted the action from England to New York. They have reduced the character of Mrs. Wix to a small walk-on part, and removed the moral strictures that undermined the credibility of the substitute parents. What the plot loses in psychological complexity it gains in immediacy.

This seems absolutely right because no director could hope to capture the Byzantine nature of James’s narration, or expect today’s audiences to be shocked by extra-marital affairs. It makes sense to simplify the tangle in which Maisie finds herself so long as the emotional truths are no less keenly defined.

Maisie’s parents in the film are more carefully developed than their fictional counterparts. Julianne Moore’s Susanna is an aging rock star who finds the demands of her career, with its hectic touring schedule, at odds with motherhood. The father, Beale, played by Steve Coogan, is an art dealer who flits back and forth between the United States and Europe. They are both almost surgically attached to their mobile phones.

It’s obvious that Susanna and Beale love their daughter. They shower her with clothes and toys, but provide none of the attention she needs. The maternal burden is taken up by Margo, the family’s Scottish nanny, (Joanna Vanderham), who has joined forces with Beale, her seducer. When Beale and Margo are married, it seems to give them an edge over Susanna in the ongoing battle for custody. Her response is to wed a young bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), who quickly becomes Maisie’s full-time carer.

James allowed readers to follow the story through Maisie’s developing awareness of the relationships between the adults and her sense of how to behave. Siegel and McGehee also let us view each scenario through Maisie’s eyes, but without the precise psychological explanations.

Onitja Aprile is so natural in the lead role she hardly seems to be acting at all. At the age of seven she is free from the hystrionic tendencies that spoil so many performances in mainstream movies. If she can make it unscathed through puberty she has a big future.

What Maisie Knew is a film any actor must relish, as it is built around dialogue and the interplay of personalities. The most surprising character is Lincoln, who initially seems like a no-hoper, but steadily takes on substance, with both Maisie and the audience. He is a far cry from his fictional shadow, Sir Claude – a down-at-heel aristocrat who charms everyone at first encounter. Lincoln makes the opposite impression, but emerges as the most sympathetic and compassionate figure in Maisie’s life.

What gave James’s novel a radical force was its polite, implicit questioning of the traditional nature of parenthood. In the Victorian household the father was the patriarch and bread-winner, the mother the house-keeper. Unhappy marriages dragged on forever, and grubby secrets were hidden away. James’s heretic thought was that a child might be more successfully raised by people other than her biological parents.

Nowadays, in a world with an impossibly complicated array of family relationships – including children from multiple marriages or those raised by same-sex parents – it’s apparent that the only essential ingredient is love. Some people have it in abundance, others should probably never have children. We shouldn’t be blinded by the outward forms of parenthood because it’s a much simpler equation that ever before: ‘Whatever works’. As this film demonstrates so brilliantly, it’s easier said than done.

Australia’s endless round of film festivals continues this week with two of the best emerging national events: The 4th Korean Film Festival (KOFFIA)  and the 2nd Persian Film Festival (PFF). It doesn’t require a long acquaintance with the South Koreans to know they are the most culturally ambitious people in the world. The global spread of Korean manufacturing is matched by the dissemination of Korean films, TV series, music and art.

Today many Korean filmmakers feel they are not getting the level of government support they once enjoyed, but they still have the kind of industry Australian directors can only dream about. This year’s KOFFIA brings together 17 features representing a wide range of genres, including espionage, gangsters, romance, martial arts, costume drama, and even a disaster movie. It also affords local audiences their first opportunity to view recent efforts by star directors such as Kim Ki-duk (Pietà), and Park Chan-wook (Stoker).

In only its second year, the PFF is establishing its credentials with a celebration of 50 Years of Iranian Cinema. It’s a formidable line-up, beginning with Dariush Mehrjoui’s 1969 classic, The Cow, and continuing up to the present day, with films such as Like Someone in Love, the latest feature by Abbas Kiarostami.

One of the defining aspects of Persian/Iranian cinema, is that it has always been produced under enormous constraints. The biggest problems have not been caused by budgets, but by the difficulty of appeasing the local censors, who take a hard line with anything that smacks of immorality. Consequently, many of the best Iranian directors have gone on to work with foreign production companies, making films that might be banned in Tehran.

Others have tried to function within those boundaries, resulting in features that dispense with all the sensational trimmings of western cinema, concentrating on character development and plots that explore basic moral dilemmas. Many of these movies might rightfully be called masterpieces. The Academy Award given to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) was the smallest act of recognition for a remarkable national cinema that has flourished in an atmosphere that is not simply unsupportive, but actively hostile.

The other notable release this week is Elysium, by South African director, Neill Blomkamp, who had a surprise hit with the science fiction drama, District 9, in 2009. What made this film stand out from the usual run of futuristic action features was its intelligent engagement with the politics of co-existence in South Africa, and the worldwide refugee crisis which has unearthed so many hostile attitudes – not least in this country.

Elysium repeats the dose, but this time we are transported to the year 2154, to an earth that has grown irreparably degraded and polluted. All its affluent citizens have relocated to a vast wagon wheel-shaped space station where they live in an artificial paradise, their every ailment cured by miraculous technology. The unhappy proles are left on earth, stagnating in slums and shanty towns under the control of a robot police force. They live and die like animals, at the mercy of injury and disease.

Yes, it’s that old saga of the haves and have-nots, with Matt Damon as Max, an unconventional Robin Hood, who finds himself with the power to change history and rearrange the balance of power. He takes on this role unwittingly, being chiefly concerned with getting himself to Elysium, where he might receive medical treatment for a lethal dose of radiation.

After an ambush on a factory owner, Max uploads data into his brain that turns out to be the key to a complete reboot of the Elysium operating system. It has been commissioned by the evil Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Head of Security, who is planning a coup d’etat. The plot gets even more complicated when a psychopathic mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley), realises the significance of the information Max is carrying. This is all the excuse required for the usual procession of bone-crunching fights, exploding bodies, stabbings, slicings and sundry brutalities.

Although this is par for the course in a Hollywood sci-fi action film, Elysium employs a more engaging set of ideas than travesties such as last year’s dismal remake of Total Recall. There’s also a kind of ethnic puzzle being played out, with the wealthy inhabitants of the space station speaking English and French, and the earth-dwellers speaking mostly Spanish. Kruger, the crazed sadist, has one of the thickest South Efrikan accents ever committed to film, which may suggest that Blomkamp has ongoing issues with his native land.

Elysium is an old-fashioned allegory of class conflict, given extra spark by the near-apocalypse of the Global Financial Crisis, and the growing chasm between rich and poor. Those bankers who caused the crisis and are still collecting their bonuses today are the residents of Elysium, happy to treat the poor as if they lived on another planet. It’s a logical extension of Wall Street projected into the heavens, while the earth becomes one big Tijuana.

 

What Maisie Knew, USA, rated M, 109 mins

Elysium, USA, rated MA 15+, 109 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 24, 2013