Written by Douglas Whyte.
What Maisie Knew, co-directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, is a contemporary adaptation of Henry James’ 1897 novel of the same name. Set in Manhattan, it details the tumultuous divorce of a recklessly selfish couple and the effects it has on their young daughter Maisie.
We experience the film through the eyes of Onata Aprile, who gives a mesmerising and mature performance as the six-year-old title character. We follow Maisie navigating her way through a world back-lit by constant arguing and destructive family politics.
The film is impressively gentle when it comes to representing Maisie’s worldview. Like all children, she plays with her toys, wears cute little ensemble outfits, and giggles at the things she finds funny. The camera is soft and crayon-like as it paints Maisie’s charming innocence. Yet despite what appears to be a beautiful and privileged atmosphere to grown up in, there is always the presence of ugliness simmering just beyond her view.
Julianne Moore plays Maisie’s mother, Susanne. A fiery, middle-aged rock star. Her erratic behaviour and willingness to neglect her daughter at a milliseconds notice makes for an unpleasant viewing experience. Steve Coogan is similarly nasty as Maisie’s art-dealing father, Beale. A wickedly aloof businessman. Though we see momentary hints of a conscience flicker across the faces of both parents, it’s never enough to cut through the overwhelming narcissism they all-too-casually employ.
In effect, Maisie’s childhood is perpetually being ripped apart at the hands of her parents, and left for the peripheral figures in her life to try and sow it back together. Here steps in Margo (Joanna Vanderham) who acts as Maisie’s nanny. She is genuinely invested in Maisie’s well-being, yet matters are complicated when she marries Maisie’s father. In spiteful fashion, Susanne marries a young bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard).
Skarsgard should win a ‘step-father of the year’ award for his effortless portrayal as the friendly Lincoln. In a role that could have easily been misinterpreted as godly, Skarsgard is able to strike a realistic balance between an unconventional guardian and a naïve young man whose best attempts at being a parent are improvised. Both he and Vanderham are excellent as Maisie’s ‘secondary’ parents.
Unfortunately the story never really hits any high notes, choosing instead to coast on the back of a limited emotional frequency, and at times turning in slightly unbelievable directions. However, any unnaturalness in plot is easy to dismiss when the subject matter and acting is appealing enough as to warrant an immersive experience.
Perhaps the most important element of the film is the uncomfortable question of how Maisie’s experiences will manifest later in life.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10