Director: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Screenplay: Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright
Based on a Novel by: Henry James
Starring: Onata Aprile, Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Steve Coogan, Joanna Vanderham
Running Time: 92 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
What Maisie Knew takes the 1897 novel of the same name by Henry James and relocates it to New York in the present day. Rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) get divorced and fight over custody of their daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) whilst using her as a tool to get back at each other. Maisie’s au-pair (also Beale’s new wife) Margo (Joanna Vanderham) alongside Susanna’s new husband Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) end up caught in the battle and seem to be the only two that actually care about the wellbeing of the 6 year old girl at the centre of it all.
What was probably quite a scandalous story back in its day is rather commonplace now. What sets it apart however is the fact that the film (and possibly the source material) tells and shows everything from Maisie’s perspective. Any details of the divorce and the custody battle are only shown in flashes that Maisie herself hears. The camera generally stays on her or at her level/perspective too creating a film that is all about Maisie and the effects her parents’ pettiness and selfishness is having on her.
This approach would never work without a strong child actor in the title role and they knocked it out of the park with this one. It may be the sign of excellent direction more than talent at such a tender age, but Onata Aprile gives a superb performance as Maisie. Subtle and natural, she’s totally believable as a child thrown between two bitter parents. She balances the forced maturity that can occur in these situations with the innocence expected from her age which makes her rough treatment all the more heartbreaking.
Unfortunately I felt the adults let the film down a little. There isn’t anything wrong with the performances, they’re all solid. I just found the characters themselves quite two dimensional. Susanna is pretty despicable throughout. There is love for Maisie there, but she’s too overly irresponsible and nasty to care about. Beale has warm moments at the start and comes off a little more rounded, but he disappears for most of the film. Then you’ve got Margo and Lincoln who are necessarily child-friendly, but are way too nice to feel fully believable.
The story they get embroiled in is a little too predictable and worn too. You can see where the film is going quite quickly although the ending surprised me a little. I was expecting a very bleak end to it all, but it actually ties up on a fairly upbeat note. I was torn by this, some of the final moments feel a bit cheesy, but there is still a bittersweetness to it when you consider the reality of the situation as well as in the final scene with Susanna and Maisie. I think just losing the very final sequence would have done wonders for me as that’s where most of the cheese comes from.
As much as I’m criticising the film, the fact that Maisie herself is so good and the ‘child’s eye view’ is so well handled, What Maisie Knew still works effectively. Quietly touching, it’s a sensitive look at the possible pitfalls of broken families in the 21st century that happens to be based on a novel from the 19th century.
What Maisie Knew is out now in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray, released by Curzon Film World. I watched the DVD and the picture and sound quality is decent enough. There are a couple of special features too. Four deleted scenes are included which are interesting although clearly weren’t vital to the film. More insightful is a feature commentary by the two directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel. I didn’t listen all the way through, but what I heard was more interesting than I expected.