What Maisie Knew Movie Review

Featuring: Onata Aprile, Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Steve Coogan, Joanna Vanderham
Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Writers: Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright (based on the novel by Henry James)
Website: www.whatmaisieknewmovie.com.au
Australian release date: Thursday, 22nd August

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A must-see for the performance of the child lead alone

Six year old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is caught in the custody battle between her parents, fading rock star Suzanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer father Beale (Steve Coogan). As the battle and point scoring between the adults rages, the little girl calmly accepts whatever is asked of her. Consumed by their hostilities and careers, her parents increasingly palm her off on their new spouses, with whom she finds nurture and stability.

Great pedigree, this movie: Henry James’ novel as a base, same producers as the astute and thoroughly wonderful The Kids Are All Right, one of the superb performers from that flick, Julianne Moore, in a leading role. And I’m thrilled to report that this is a rare instance, for me at least, of high expectations being exceeded rather than dashed.

The form indicators were, indeed, uncommonly reliable in this case, but the standout element is a surprise – I’m referring to the performance of 7yo Onata Aprile as Maisie. Kids are always terrific actors, but this effort is really one out of the box – for me, approaching the heights of the Irish twin sisters in In America. That’s surely as good as it gets.

Obviously, the directors must share the credit in coaxing this flawlessly credible performance of great sensitivity from their gifted child lead. Somehow, they must have gotten her to intellectually understand and emotionally engage in finest detail with her character and the complex situation she is negotiating; intuition, as abundant as it might be in a child, cannot alone push a performance this far.

Maisie is calm in the midst of her parents’ chaos, returning their affection equally and unreservedly whenever they find time outside their hostilities and careers to pay her some attention. When they war, shouting obscenities and accusations at each other, she watches on from a distance, quietly computing. Indeed, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Onata’s performance is her use of facial expression to communicate her character’s internal response to the confusing and often potentially traumatic messages coming at her from the adult world.

This is never more evident than during a conversation with her father, who is trying to convince her to live with him in England. His motivation is primarily to hurt her mother, and as he thinks aloud over the inconvenient ramifications for himself of taking Maisie away with him, he abruptly changes tack. Aw, you wouldn’t like it, he tells her, drawing on the cold and rain of Old Blighty as a disincentive. She watches on and nods, always accepting, but you can see her grappling with the contradictions inherent in her father’s stupid condescension. Later, with devastating precision and purity, she reduces the exchange to a single sentence while talking to her mother: “Daddy wanted me to go to England with him, then he changed his mind.” The profound, heartbreaking simplicity of a child who understands all too well…

Her mother tries to compensate for her frequent absences with extravagant presents, and by gushing assurances of her love not supported by her selfish actions. When she tells Maisie of her new stepfather, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), the little girl asks if there had been a bridesmaid at the wedding. Divining her disappointment at being excluded from the ceremony, her mother tells her it was a registry office job, without even a cake. She adds “I married him for you – it was all for you.” And this isn’t entirely untruthful: it soon becomes evident that Lincoln is a convenience, someone to dump Maisie with. The two strike it off – the rapport between Onata and Skarsgård is one of the high points of the movie – but far from being pleased, Mom reacts with jealousy and possessiveness.

As things transpire, Maisie is taken under the wing of both her new step-parents, who share the uncomfortable realisation that their intended function within their new marriages is not so much as partners but as minders to Maisie. In stark contrast to her blood parents, they relate to her as both child-in-their-charge and person, and as they come to adore her delight in her company. While Maisie’s joy in the love and new stability they provide her lights up the screen, we cannot help but to be aware that it’s all so transient, that sooner rather than later the poor kid will be wrenched away as her selfish, possessive, undeserving screw-up of a mother lays claim to her. Truly heart-rending.

I have a couple of criticisms of the film. Firstly, Maisie’s parents are one-dimensional in that they are SO appallingly selfish, SO unappreciative of what they have in their angelic daughter. (I suppose many time-stretched careerist parents will have some sympathy for their positions. Me? I despised them both.). But if these characters are less rounded than they might be, it is a minor criticism because the dynamics of their relationship with their daughter and each other ring painfully true.

Secondly, there is a development with the new spouses that is a bit neat, a bit Hollywood. We’re in spoiler territory here, so I won’t elaborate – but you’ve probably guessed.

I’m nit-picking, though. The territory Henry James explores in Maisie is as relevant today as ever it was, or will be, and this contemporisation is deftly handled. It’s a must-see for Onata’s performance alone. You’ll find yourself aching for her, and her many real-life counterparts, long after you leave the cinema.

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2 thoughts on “What Maisie Knew Movie Review”

  1. I also came to this with high hopes, but had them dashed rather than exceeded! True, I was in the throes of the dreaded lurgy, but even so, I was disposed to like this film, and was disappointed.

    Yes, little Onata Aprile was wonderful. No overacting there: all seemed dead sincere; and her little Perishers-style knobby legs and childish giggle were adorable. The adult actors were all good too, as far as they needed to be.

    But the script left me cold. I have read the James novel decades ago, but only remember the gist. I can’t say how closely the film follows the book but that is not the nature of my criticism anyway. The thing is, it’s a great premise: the child whose separated parents are so derelict in their duty that the traditionally hated step-parent becomes the more desirable carer. It’s as relevant today as it was when James wrote it in 1897. What lets this modern film treatment down for me is the utter lack of nuance in characters and situations. The parents were irredeemably awful, and the steps were utterly saccharine. For me, the story never quite took off and felt flat throughout – what for you were minor criticisms I felt as major flaws.

  2. G’day Karen,

    Fair enough.

    Seems we perceived the same weak points, but for me the astute and I think very accurate dynamics of the relationships made up for the less than rounded parent characters, and for you not. And while you may have been harder to please due to feeling under the weather, I was in a heightened emotional state (recent hassles), and am also regularly witness to some selfish and stupid parenting, which probably left me more receptive to a flick like this. Whatever, I still reckon the little girl’s performance alone makes this a remarkable piece.

    As with you, for me any likeness or otherwise to the James novel didn’t come into it. Irrelevant anyway, as far as I’m concerned, and especially so as I haven’t read it and am not a big fan of James (with The Turn Of The Screw a glaring exception).

    Hope you’re on the way back to your usual dangerous state of full health!


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