Review: What Maisie Knew

This modern reworking of Henry James’ 1897 novel presents a touching insight into a broken family, from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl. reviews

maisieDirector: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Starring: Onata Aprile, Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan
Length: 99 minutes
Rating: ★★★★☆

Those who watch this film will feel significantly more familiar with the nature of separation and custody battles than those who read Henry James’ novel for the first time 116 years ago. As such, Scott McGehee and David Siegel faced the task of translating the story onto the silver screen with sensitivity and freshness – a task they’ve emphatically succeeded in completing, and more.

Maisie (Aprile) is a seven-year-old girl caught in the centre of a bitter and spiteful break-up between her parents Beale (Coogan) and Susanna (Moore). Intelligent and fully-aware, Maisie is patronised by the two adults who fail to recognise her as a free-thinking individual, and instead try to manipulate her to get one over their selfish opposite. Nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) initially appears to be the only one with any concern for Maisie’s interests, until Susanna’s new toy-boy Lincoln (Alexander Skasgård) is also drawn to her charm and neglect, and in turn is eventually drawn to Margo.

Coogan performs well as Beale in this necessarily serious role, as his well-mastered haplessness speaks volumes when failing to engage with his daughter, who is otherwise blocked out by his business-minded ignorance. Moore on the other hand plays a much more spiteful turn as Susanna, a dwindling rock star with a selfish enough desire for youth and love to match even Norma Desmond.

All the focus is on Onata Aprile, however, who although may not be the most dynamic child actress out there, harvests truck-loads of empathy in engaging each and every audience member. The plot is driven by what Maisie hears and sees, and her experience of the custody battle is the viewer’s. Frequent low-angle shots bring you to her level, literally, so an acute awareness of her position always pits you directly against whichever adult is neglecting her.

Apart from Maisie, there is no truly moralistic adult. In Henry James’ novel, this should be the character of Mrs Wix, who only appears rather fleetingly in the film and is dismissed as scary and smelly by Maisie herself. As a result, the film’s message becomes rather mixed. One might read that paying attention to your family and not just yourself is the key to a happy household. However Margo and Lincoln’s treatment of Maisie isn’t always exemplary. The film wanders toward making them mimic Susanna and Beale respectively, but backs away from it with no clear stimulus. It seems like Maisie can only be truly happy when her guardian doesn’t have to go to work which, in the end, makes one wonder how long her new seaside life with Margo and Lincoln will last.

That aside, this is an accomplished and touching film that will remind every parent viewer that a child is never a burden, but always a blessing.

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