A contemporary adaptation of Henry James’ story What Maisie Knew shows that perhaps the writer knew more about modern living back in the 19th Century than we do now.
The story is seen through the eyes of young Maisie (Onata Aprile), a quietly observant and intelligent girl, who is passed from pillar to post as her parents first separate and then become increasingly disinterested in their child. Aging rocker mum Susanna (Julianne Moore) is more interested in her career while dear old daddy Beale (Steve Coogan) sees Maisie as nothing more than a bargaining chip to first frustrate Susanna and then woo nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham).
As Maisie’s life becomes more and more disjointed, and her parents, only interested in her when it suits their busy lives, the young girl begins to find parental substitutes in the unlikeliest of places. At first Margo becomes a surrogate mother before Susanna’s new husband Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) takes up the slack.
While the film in it’s opening two acts feels slightly repetitive, you’ll lose count of the times someone forgets to pick Maisie up from school, the finale more than makes up for it, conjuring a love story that hints at a secure life for our young protagonist.
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel return to the form they showed on The Deep End, having dabbled in bizzaro alternate reality film Uncertainty. The visuals are sumptuous, glowing in New York sunlight before becoming free of the oppressive city to bask in a glorious open beach location.
The performances are where What Maisie Knew excels. Coogan’s absent minded father is typically glib. Moore brings a wonderful tragedy to her aging rocker, only mildly trying to accommodate Maisie into her rock and roll lifestyle. Skarsgard and Vanderham are both angelic, bordering a little on the too good to be true but they are the silver lining to their partners’ thunderstorm. But it is young Aprile who truly captivates. As Maisie she is wise beyond her years without ever losing the innocent look in her eyes.
Often lacking in a firm narrative direction, What Maisie Knew is nonetheless a poignant and often beautiful drama seen through the eyes of a girl too innocent to comprehend it all.