Six year old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is at the centre of a bitter divorce between her rock n’ roll icon mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and her father Beale (Steve Coogan), a charming but distant art dealer. As the divorce proceedings twists and turns, Maisie is passed around between each parent. But when they both re-marry, Susanna to a young tall Blonde guy called Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) and Beale to his daughter’s long time nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), soon Maisie is lost in an adult world with nowhere to turn.
What Maisie Knew directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel decided to take the original novel by Henry James and move it into a contemporary time frame and setting – modern day New York City. The film benefits much greater for doing this transition, it becomes more relatable and visually easier to make sense of all that is going on around the central characters. Yet it’s not the surroundings that make this film such a tour-de-force, it’s the acting from each individual closely associated with Maisie that drew us in and made us feel certain emotions for each of those characters.
In the past few years we have seen incredible film performances from young children and now we can add Onata Aprile to that list. Her central role as Maisie is the reason why this film grabbed us and never let go. She melts every heart with her lost, fragile and scared look when she feels without hope. Yet it’s her brightest moments that lifts the film to a higher level – to see the delight she experiences when she feels the sand between her toes or just enjoys time with someone who truly cares for her. This is one remarkable performance that will never leave us.
Coogan gives an initial warming performance as the father but as time moves on we see his true colours and all that he cares about, this is possibly one of Steve’s best straight roles as he never ham’s it up outside of joking around with his daughter. Instead he gives a straight businessman attitude that gradually moves his life solely to him and damn to everyone else.
Julianne Moore is a straight up piece of nasty, right from the off it’s the hatred towards her character that drives most of the film. Moore plays it with such devilment that it recalls a modern day Wicked Witch persona. It’s clear she has modeled her role on several of the famous female musicians over the decades (ones that became famous for their music alone) and whilst she may be worshipped by her fans, she is lost to her family.
The finest adult turn in the film comes from Alexander Skarsgard, as we are introduced to this tall, blonde waft of a man that doesn’t seem to have any grasp on real life, but as the film progresses he becomes the main relatable adult to Maisie. His basic life attitude helps him connect with this new child in his life, but by the time the end credits happen he has grown into a man that has a sole focus, and this focus uplifts his life considerably. This is a vastly different Skarsgard than what we have seen before and it shows the ability of the man and his acting range.
What Maisie Knew is a provocative and poignant film that deals with a one of the most personal aspects of a parent’s life, but is told from the angle of the child. It twists and turns with every emotion possible to each of the adults within Maisie’s life. We found ourselves with such anger and then to be turned to emotional mush in the next scene was impressive. This film will drain you of all energy due to its nature, but it’s a movie that should be seen by everyone as it connects on so many different aspects of life.