Directed by the team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture), based on a novel of the same name by Henry James and with a screenplay penned by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, What Maisie Knew is a drama about family and life through the eyes and heart of a child in the middle of a bitter parental feud. I was late to the party here, but had heard so many good things from so many places that I figured it was about time I gave this film a shot, and I’m glad I finally did.
Maisie (Onata Aprile) is a seven year old girl who lives in New York with her parents, Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan). We soon realise that Maisie’s parents aren’t exactly happy, and Maisie spends much of her time listening to them scream at one another while she’s being looked after by her nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham). Margo is warm and does her best to keep Maisie away from the harmful verbal fights that her parents regularly engage in, and it isn’t long before they separate. Susanna is an ageing musician in a punk rock band, a self-involved and careless woman who, while she obviously loves her daughter, ignores many of her responsibilities, relying on others to do what she, as a parent, should be doing. Beale, an art dealer, leaves the house and into one of his own, and we see that Margo is now living with him, the two of them now in a relationship together. Susanna becomes bitter towards Margo, who still offers a lot of care and guidance to Maisie when she is staying at her father’s house. With the court awarding joint custody to Susanna and Beale, we see that their hate and distain for one another seeps over into their lack of interest in their daughter. Susanna goes on the road with her band, and Beale goes to London on business, leaving Maisie, time and again, with whomever is available. Beale and Margo marry, and Susanna, afraid of being alone, quickly and selfishly marries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), someone Maisie is unfamiliar with initially, but shows himself to be a caring, warm and loving presence in her life. With various thoughtless and self-centred decisions made by Beale and Susanna, we see that Margo and Lincoln, two people caught in the cross-fire, are the ones who are truly there for Maisie, offering her support, love and safety when her real parents fall into their own self-pity and refuse to acknowledge their obligations.
There have been plenty of films that deal with parental divorce and children who are being pulled in two separate directions, but I hadn’t seen one that dealt with parents who, though pulling their child in two directions, never seen to think about the damage it is doing, with said responsibility falling to the “step-parents”, two people who find themselves, through no real fault of their own, taking up the position of care-giver while the real ones poison themselves and those around them with their hatred and egomania.
It is a very interesting take on a familiar story, and it is acted brilliantly by everyone involved, including the young Aprile who plays the titular Maisie. Maisie is the character in which the focus of the film falls, showing how children can see through deceit and excuses and how they are underserving victims when it comes to divorce and the one-upmanship that occurs in the aftermath. Coogan and Moore are very good indeed as Maisie’s parents. Hostile and petulant, refusing to look at what is best for their child, they offer an image of what would happen if hate got the better of a situation. Vanderham, an actress I am unfamiliar with, as Margo, is excellent here and offers perhaps the strongest performance in a beautifully acted movie. Her tireless care for Maisie, regardless of the fact that she isn’t her daughter, offers some truly emotional scenes, especially when we see Maisie’s face light up when she sees her. Skarsgard, as Lincoln, is similar to Margo, thrust into a situation through jealousy and anger and left to care for a child that doesn’t belong to him, he shows a side to him as an actor that I hadn’t seen previously, and I thought he was excellent.
There were times when I felt like the bad decisions and selfishness of Moore and Coogan’s Susanne and Beale were so bad that they were almost unbelievable, and I pondered that perhaps the film was tied up a little bit too neatly, but regardless of those things, this is a film that is emotional and completely engaging, with performances of an extremely high quality. Dealing with dark and terrible themes, such as abandonment and neglect, it manages to inject hope and love into the proceedings, allowing for some lovely moments. Sure, some might find some of the moments a little too sappy or sentimental, but this is a movie, after all, and it’s nice to imagine that there is some happiness and positivity to be found out there, even if a child was to find themselves in a situation where their parents decided to throw in the towel.
Seeing life through Maisie’s eyes and picking up on how she feels about certain things is revealing and thought provoking, and her interactions with the people she meets go from being sad and peculiar to funny and moving. Dealing with the innocence of childhood can be a tough thing to pull off convincingly in film, especially if you want to try something different and bring sympathy into the mix, but this does is very well indeed.