A modern adaptation of the Henry James novel of the same name, which looks at the break up of a dysfunctional relationship through the perspective of their neglected young daughter. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan star as rowing rich couple Susanna and Beale, an ageing rocker and wheeler art dealer respectively, going through a turbulent marriage where their six year old girl Maisie (Onata Aprile) is used as a bargaining chip, passed from pillar to post. She only finds occasional solace through nanny turned stepmother Margo, expertly portrayed by Joanna Vanderham, and surprisingly also with Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) who Susanna marries soon after the divorce in a selfish ploy for sole custody. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, ‘What Maisie Knew’ is beautifully made, full of top drawer performances, great humour and has a heart wrenchingly touching narrative.
Maisie’s isolation is shown effectively through the cinematography, by putting her petite figure in gaping wide shots, a microcosm highlighting her minor significance in the sensationalist lifestyles of her parents. Also, when holding hands with a grown up, we, as the audience, are continuously placed at Maisie’s head height, the faces of her elders often left unseen, illustrating the flimsy nature of her upbringing and letting us into her world. This is a recurring theme, the story allowing us into Maisie’s way of life, through use of neat close ups of her drawings, toys and games of tic-tac-toe, but not shying away from her inner trauma, the built up sadness and torment expressed perfectly in a memorable scene with one single tear. There are zoom fixations on Susanna and Beale, as if the camera represents her gaze and what makes her tale so heartbreaking is that she clearly adores her parents yet her love is unrequited. There are one or two tender moments in which we see that she may well be loved by her mum and dad, but not in the right way.
What aids this success are the magnificent performances from all concerned. Veterans Moore and Coogan are both great in the parenting roles. We see a lot more of Moore’s reckless rock mum which she has down to a tee but Coogan is equally effective in a very Coogan-esque smug but funny role. As with all the actors, they excel in scenes with the amazing Onata Aprile. With shades of Mara Wilson in Matilda, Aprile is impeccable in the titular role. Co-star Vanderham stated that even when Aprile is in neutral mode, her facial expression suggests sadness which works brilliantly, giving off an effortless aura. She not only plays sadness well, she brings a lot of humour, delivering excellent observations on the people around her. Scenes at the school really help to offer a nostalgia of childlike humour, in particular in a hilarious moment when she introduces her new step dad Lincoln to her class like a show-and-tell piece. Vanderham and Skarsgård are really good and their characters are also mistreated and used by Maisie’s parents and through this neglect they form a bond with Maisie.
I have nothing but praise for ‘What Maisie Knew’, and was instantly drawn into the story and the likeable, and relatable characters. Onata Aprile steals the show, evoking a hugely emotional response and the clever direction and camera work links us to her viewpoint. It is interesting to see a feuding break-up film through the eyes of the child, who is inevitably affected the most, their outlook deserving of its showcase. Last year, nine year old Quvenzhané Wallis was showered with award nominations for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, showing young stars can now be recognised in the same way as adult actors. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying she was amazing ‘for her age’ but she was incredible for any age and makes this film a faultless masterpiece.
See the trailer: