out of Five
Running time: 93
Impressively directed and superbly written, this is a powerfully emotional and strikingly perceptive drama with excellent performances from a note-perfect cast.
What's it all about?
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Bee Season, The Deep End), What Maisie Knew is a modern-day adaptation of an 1897 novel by Henry James and stars Onata Aprile as six year old Maisie, whose rock star mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) is in the middle of a bitter break-up with her British father, art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan). When the divorce comes through, Maisie finds herself continually shuttled between Beale and Susanna but finds solace in her relationships with her parents' respective new partners, her former nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and sexy barman Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard).
Young Onata Aprile (just six at the time of filming) gives an astonishingly assured and bracingly natural performance as Maisie, quietly absorbing everything around her and wordlessly adjusting to her ever-changing situation; she also has powerful and affecting chemistry with both Skarsgard and Vanderham.
The adult performances are equally good: Moore is superb as Maisie's self-absorbed mother, who doesn't realise the damage she's doing and Coogan reins in his comedic persona to play Beale as a distant man who realises he has nothing in common with his daughter, while Vanderham and Skarsgard form the film's emotional centre, delivering compassionate, heartfelt performances that are genuinely moving.
The direction is excellent, with events unfolding largely from Maisie's point of view; the effect of this is that, occasionally, the true meaning of a scene only strikes you later, such as an early scene where Susanna sings Maisie to sleep – at first it looks like a moving and typically maternal gesture, but later you realise that it's entirely driven by guilt and, worse, that she's possibly only doing it so that she has something she has something she can tell the courts.
The superb script avoids easy sentimentality (there's no saccharine Hollywood nonsense here) and is extremely perceptive throughout. It also pulls off a delightfully clever trick whereby the film's real story sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise, while the ending is simultaneously commendable, satisfying and thought-provoking.
What Maisie Knew is a superbly directed and powerfully emotional drama with a perceptive script and terrific performances across the board. Highly recommended.