Breathe In, What Maisie Knew
Posted on Wednesday June 19, 2013, 11:49 by Stephen Carty in Edinburgh International Film Festival
The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival kicked-off in ivory-tinkling fashion on Wednesday with Breathe In, Drake Doremus’ low-key family drama about former musician Keith (Guy Pearce) who isn’t fulfilled by family life. Still yearning for the career that was cut short when he and his wife (Amy Ryan) had their daughter (newcomer Mackenzie Davis) 17 years ago, Keith scratches his creative itch by subbing as a cellist for the New York orchestra, hoping to join them full-time when a seat eventually opens up. When a young exchange student (Felicity Jones) arrives to stay with the family, however, she stirs something in Keith – no sniggering at the back – that threatens to tear his marriage apart.
Aside from the fact that it opened the festival, the film is most notable as Doremus’ follow-up to his Sundance-winning transatlantic romance, Like Crazy. In similar fashion, the indie filmmaker here opts for intimate hand-held camerawork and largely improvised dialogue, resulting in another impressively naturalistic affair that reunites him with Felicity Jones, who’s once again a British student abroad. Like that film, this benefits from two stand-out lead performances and co-written with collaborative screenwriter Ben York Jones, Breathe In is a similarly authentic piece that is speckled with truthful, understated moments. See, for example, Keith’s forced, unconvincing smile during a family portrait. Showcasing a mesmerising stubble-beard of which even The Stath would approve, Guy Pearce works wonders with the improvisational approach, while Jones, who’s fast becoming Doremus’ plummy muse, hands in another strong turn that should see her stock rise further. There’s an argument to be made that the characters aren’t particularly likeable (Amy Ryan as Keith's wife, we’re looking at you), but Breathe In beautifully captures what it feels like to wish for the life you could have had and the path you might have taken. And as with Like Crazy, the final note is bittersweet, ambiguous and tragic all at once - much like the film itself.
Another delicate family drama worth seeing is What Maisie Knew, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s worthy update of Henry James’ 1897 classic novel. Set in contemporary New York, it centres on quiet six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile), who’s neglected somewhat after the separation of her fading rock star mum, Susanna (Julianne Moore), and her always-away-on-business father, Beale (Steve Coogan). While this might sound like the recipe for a syrupy melodrama, it’s actually a touching and beautifully acted depiction of how divorce – and, by extension, neglect – can affect the child involved. As the collateral damage in Susanna and Beale’s custody struggle, Maisie ends up being looked after by their new respective partners – pretty nanny Margot (Joanna Vanderham) and lanky barman Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) – both of whom offer better parenting than her own flesh and blood.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is its steadfast refusal to portray Susanna and Beale in simplistic, one-dimensional terms. Both are shown to genuinely love Maisie in their own neglectful way; it’s just that they are messy, careless people who leave others to do the heavy lifting. Julianne Moore is outstanding as the former star, acing a key emotional scene in which she tries to persuade her daughter to come on tour, while Steve Coogan provides further evidence of his ability to do straight drama, similarly nailing a corresponding moment where he explains to Maisie the realities of moving to England. Travelling via Chiswick roundabout, of course.
But while you might come for Moore and Coogan, you’ll stay for Skarsgård and Aprile. Joanna Vanderham is solid in her film debut, but it’s the chemistry between Lincoln and Maisie that proves most charming. Though the hunky Swede is best known for playing an intimidating vampire on TV’s True Blood, he oozes easy charm and shaggy likeability here like he’s never seen a fang before, while little Onata Aprile is a quiet revelation. As for what Maisie actually knew, I'm at a loss, but that's a small quibble in the end.