Blog Reviews

What Maisie Knew – Review – movieScope

Henry James may have written his original novel over a century ago, but his story of a young child who suffers at the hands of irresponsible parents is—sadly—utterly timeless. This adaptation really underscores that contemporary relevance by setting the action in modern day New York, that fractured, frantic city where genuine human connection is the ultimate challenge

Rock musician Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) are going through a brutal breakup, and their six-year-old daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) is well and truly caught in the crossfire. Her parents engage in a vicious court custody battle, only because each wants to claim their daughter as a tool to hurt each other. When Susanna heads off on tour and Beale to business overseas, it falls to nanny (and Beale’s new wife) Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and Susanna’s bartender husband Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) to look after Maisie and, finally, give her a hint of the stability she so desperately craves.

That this is all told entirely from Maisie’s point of view—she is in every scene, and we never see any adult interaction without her present—means the film is given a powerful subtlety. Maisie, of course, cannot begin to comprehend the intricate emotional power plays at work here and so, through her eyes, it becomes a deeply poignant story of innocence lost. That’s not to say the story is without complexity. Rather, in deference to Maisie’s limited understanding, the secrets and lies of the adults are handled with restraint; the arguments that form the soundtrack to Maisie’s life happen out of shot, the romance between Beale and Margo revealed only through Margo’s faltering attempts to explain this ‘friendship’ to Maisie. This makes their impact on this charming, accepting child even more devastating.

At the centre of the tumult, young newcomer Aprile is outstanding. She handles her character’s journey with natural ease, showcasing both the simple optimism of youth and the slow understanding that the world may not be as you thought it was. Portraying Maisie’s increasing awareness of her parent’s shortcomings with a quiet reflection that seems to be beyond her years, Aprile makes this six-year-old girl one of the most interesting and sympathetic heroines of the year. She sweeps us along her journey and, by the film’s end, will have reduced the most hardened viewer to tears, both of sadness and joy.

The rest of the cast are also excellent across the board; Moore and Coogan spark with passionate animosity—the hate positively radiates out of the screen—while Vanderham  and Skarsgard are both extremely likeable and engaging as the better adults in Maisie’s life. Behind the camera, the screenplay by Nancy Doyne and Carrol Cartwright effortlessly translates James’ 19th Century prose into an edgy, modern tragedy, while cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captures both the tumult of Maisie’s life and her quiet acceptance of it. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel conduct  these elements masterfully, ensuring that this story never succumbs to the sentimentality or melodrama that could have so easily crept in.

Yet, this is undoubtedly Maisie’s story, and it’s Aprile’s performance that sends it soaring. And, while Maisie may rarely shed a tear, What Maisie Knew is one of the year’s most heartbreaking, compelling films; both difficult to watch and an absolute must-see.




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