Film Review - What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew
, starring Steve Coogan, Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgård, is a contemporary adaptation of Henry James's classic novel. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have re-sited the story in present-day New York, allowing them to explore the lifestyles of the once well-off and famous, struggling to regain their equilibrium in the midst of a global recession. Six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) watches as her self-absorbed parents tear each other apart before agreeing to split up. Moore’s former rock-star mother, Susannah, is trying to make a come-back while Coogan’s  art-dealer father, Beale, is largely absent from the family home – both physically and emotionally.

As her parents fight over custody and score cheap shots against each other in the law courts, Maisie finds herself increasingly drawn to her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who Beale subsequently marries, and Susannah’s rebound boyfriend Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). As her career takes off again Susannah’s narcissism knows no bounds. She expects kind-hearted Lincoln to organise his bar work around Maisie and yet is resentful of their growing attachment. She showers Maisie with presents but is happy to leave her daughter unattended if she threatens her schedule. Beale, meanwhile, prepares to return to his native London where, he begins to think, he’d be better off without the burdens of marriage or a child.

It’s soon pretty obvious that Lincoln and Margo, badly treated and wounded by their partners, will end up together but this doesn’t affect the pleasure of watching their emotional journey. Their relationship, and how it affects Maisie, becomes the film’s central conceit, and we are largely left guessing as to what her final choice will be.

Towards the end of What Maisie Knew, there is a moment when Susannah, tears in her eyes, clutches her daughter tightly to her and tells her that once she was exactly like her. This is the crux of Susannah’s failure as a parent. She wants only a mirror to herself and cannot cope with a needy, fragile, questioning daughter who desperately needs stability and consistency in order to feel loved and grounded.

The narrative’s linchpin is Maisie and much of the film’s momentum comes from Aprile’s ability to channel her quicksilver state of mind. Aprile does not disappoint in her portrayal of a child negotiating an alien world; her initial wide-eyed innocence, her simple needs, her growing psychological awareness and her gradual understanding of the serendipity and unreliability of the adults around her. Maisie’s rite of passage is the film’s emotional heart and how she will use the knowledge she gains becomes its central conflict.

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