What Maisie Knew

Art & Culture

Updating Henry James’s novel (written over 100 years ago) might have seemed like a risky venture. But apart from a misstep at the very end of the film, this modern adaptation of dysfunctional family dynamics, and how they affect the child at the heart of them, is compelling viewing.

Maisie (Onata Aprile) is a 7 year old girl living in New York with her rock star mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and her English art dealer father Beale (Steve Coogan). The careers of both parents are not what they were, and the relationship is borderline toxic. Two wounded narcissists specialise in finding each other’s weak points, then poking them with a sharp object.

Maisie watches them silently, obviously familiar with such behaviour, and aware that she is in no position to do anything other then endure it. She does have a kind young Scottish nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham) but even that relationship is complicated by the fact that when Beale finally leaves (or is thrown out), it turns out that he and the nanny have a thing; and so when Maisie goes to see her daddy, Margo is living with him. Indeed, they are married.

When Susanna hears about this, she too goes out and finds herself a young blonde of her own, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) a long lean kind-hearted and naive bartender. So now Maisie has 2 real parents between whom she is hurled back and forth rather randomly, and 2 step-parents who actually seem to like spending time with her, and – when the real parents abandon Maisie almost entirely – find they like spending time with each other. It’s all rather a neat conceit, and while based on the original narrative, the film’s script departs from it quite significantly. 

The reason the film works is because of Onata Aprile. This child, who is the same age as the character she plays, has an extraordinary level of self possession on screen. She has that rare quality of appearing to be able to simply be, rather than feeling the need to act or work too hard. She has a wonderfully expressive face, and she allows that to do the work. We know what she’s feeling (or imagine we do) without her having to wave her arms around and pull faces.

The rest of the cast are also excellent,. Moore and Coogan play as unpleasant a pair as you could hope not to be born to, forever declaring their love for Maisie, as if that makes up for the fact that their behaviour suggests the opposite. My reservation, as referred to above, is the ending. For obvious reasons, I can’t/won’t go into detail, but it feels false in the context of what has gone before. It doesn’t spoil the film, but the directors would have been well advised simply to remove the last 2 minutes of screen time. You’ll see what I mean.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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