What Maisie Knew
is based on the 1897 Henry James novel of the same name. The story details the divorce of two supremely selfish people through the eyes of their young daughter. Directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee update the story for the
screen.Set in contemporary Manhattan, we meet Maisie, an innocent young girl made lonely by the divorce and arguments of struggling artist parents Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan). Maisie’s saving grace comes in the odd form of instant stepparents Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham).The story is a slow burner as we simply follow Maisie throughout her daily routines. It is a masterful use of the “show, don’t tell” ideology as Maisie is a quiet presence throughout. This is a simple film without any of the usual tricks. What makes this movie special is that we are positioned entirely in Maisie’s viewpoint. Events escalate, leaving us wondering why we are missing out on major moments. This might be frustrating if it weren’t for the fact that we are alongside Maisie. We don’t see and experience the adult changes in the story because Maisie doesn’t, we are positioned as a childish bystander on the periphery in the same way that she is.The standout performance here is that of our tiny protagonist. Onata Aprile is a revelation as Maisie. Whilst Onata might technically be too young to truly understand the nuances of the story she tells, it doesn’t show. Her performance betrays a talent far beyond her years.Alexander Skarsgård’s Lincoln seems almost as lost in the adult world as Maisie yet he is utterly spellbinding with her. We find ourselves entirely trusting that Maisie is safe with him even if his ignorance at the beginning does threaten to get her knocked down. Joanna Vanderham’s Margo is charming enough but it seems as though she holds something back. Whilst Skarsgård throws himself entirely into the role of Lincoln, visually embodying his nervous fish-out-of-water status, Vanderham sometimes seems static. We witness her love for Maisie, yet there is something business-like about her attitude that prevents us from fully falling in love with her character. It seems as though Margo cannot let go of her ‘nanny’ status and adopt a more natural maternal role.
Julianne Moore gives a good performance as self-centered mother Susanna, who consistently finds herself in court demanding custody of a child she abandons at any opportunity. Unfortunately her apparent aging rock star status is contrived and utterly impossible to believe. Moore does shine with Susanna’s single moment of clarity in which she sees herself through her daughter’s eyes. This is one of the film’s most powerful moments. It is just a shame that the rest of Moore’s performance is peppered with strained references to her implausible musical prowess. Steve Coogan has some funny moments as self-absorbed Beale but is largely an absent figure for us in the same way he is an absent father figure for Maisie
What Maisie Knew is not a spectacle; it is an introverted film that is in danger of slipping by largely unnoticed. Heart-warming from beginning to an ending that on paper might seem implausible or even legally questionable but somehow works. What Maisie Knew might just be the most heartfelt and genuine movie of the year with some stellar performances.