What Maisie Knew (4 stars)

What Maisie Knew

Well-crafted drama starring Julianne Moore showing divorce from a child's point of view

In an upmarket Manhattan apartment, rock singer Susanna (Julianne Moore) and her art dealer partner Beale (Steve Coogan) are having an explosive argument. The camera quickly moves to an adjacent room, where the couple’s infant daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) is doing an impressive job of zoning out the shouts and insults, eating pizza with her young, pretty nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham). This is the starting point for directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s contemporary retelling of Henry James’ 1898 novel, and it sets up the child’s-eye perspective from which they proceed to tell this story of family break-up. Initially this is disorienting, as we are ferried with Maisie through a series of half-heard arguments, one-sided phone conversations and last-minute ‘I love you’s from whichever parent is hastily leaving her with the other. But as these moments accumulate the filmmakers’ intentions take effect; we strongly identify with Maisie and feel the lack of care and attention being shown to her. This is also in no small part thanks to Onata Aprile, a young actress blessed with the kind of naturalism that many professionals five times her age still struggle to find.

This is a film that deals in subtle details, and its value lies in the way the filmmakers draw out small moments of surprise or truth from the familiar scenario. The repetition of certain phrases from the adults to Maisie – ‘I love you more than anything’, ‘this is our little secret’ – take on more or less significance as Maisie sees them confirmed or denied by the adults’ actions. Married to this is the convincing subtlety of the actors’ performances: both Moore and Coogan acquit themselves well, particularly in later scenes that powerfully hit home because of groundwork laid in earlier moments. Equally good is Alexander Skarsgård as Lincoln, the unsuspecting new boyfriend of Susanna who finds himself left with Maisie on more than one occasion. His childlike warmth and innocence restores both Maisie and the audience’s faith in the possibility of goodness, even in the midst of emotionally wrenching pain.

Screening at Cineworld Fountain Park, Thu 20 Jun and Filmhouse, Sat 22 Jun as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2013. General release from Fri 23 Aug.

What Maisie Knew OFFICIAL Trailer (2012)

What Maisie Knew

  • 4 stars
  • 2012
  • US
  • 1h 39min
  • Directed by: Scott McGehee/David Siegel
  • Cast: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård
  • UK release: 23 August 2013

Reworking of Henry James' novel features a 7-year-old girl caught up in a custody battle between her selfish parents.