Starring: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard, Onata Aprile
Directed by: Scott McGehee (“Bee Season”) and David Siegel (“Bee Season”)
Written by: Carroll Cartwright (“Dungeons and Dragons”) and Nancy Doyne (debut)
It’s a statistic stated so many times in the past few decades it is practically an axiom: half of all marriages end in divorce. While these days the stats show the number is closer to 40 percent than 50 percent, it seems unlikely that author Henry James could have known how timely his novel would end up being when he wrote it in 1897, a year when the divorce rate was a mere 6 percent. As a modern film adaptation of his novel of the same name, “What Maisie Knew” tells the story of a bitter divorce and custody battle through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl.
Set in New York City, rock ‘n’ roll musician Susanne (Julianne Moore) and her successful husband Beale (Steve Coogan) are embroiled in a failing marriage. As their relationship crumbles, a bitter custody battle ensues, causing their young daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) to get caught in the middle. Both parents quickly remarry and eventually dump off parental responsibilities to their respective spouses, Lincoln, (Alexander Skarsgard) a bartender, and Margo, (Joanna Vanderham) who serves as Maisie’s nanny.
Moore and Coogan both give very strong performances, and Moore is especially good at being completely selfish and unhinged. Both actors are particularly strong at conveying tension, especially during the scenes where they butt heads and argue. As the film progresses, it is clear that Lincoln and Margo become more parental figures than Maisie’s actual parents. Though Vanderham is good, Skarsgard is a nice surprise in this role. His character and Maisie’s are thrown together quickly and slow to warm up to each other. As the film progresses, the two actors show tremendous magnetic chemistry and Skarsgard’s charm and interactions with Aprile become very enjoyable to watch.
What keeps “What Maisie Knew” from being a completely upsetting film is both the age of the character and the brilliant performance from a young actress. Maisie is a happy child and one that is largely oblivious to the neglectful and vindictive actions of her parents. It is always a risky move to have a child actor be the anchor of a film, but Aprile’s natural delivery and screen presence is such a wonderful revelation. The young Aprile is able to express so much with a simple gaze or facial expression and she never feels overmatched or misplaced in an ensemble piece with such strong acting all around. Of course, a child actor’s instincts can only go so far and much of the credit should be given to co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel for knowing how to coax a nuanced performance out of her and capture the blissful innocence of a child pitch perfectly.
Since much of the film focuses on Maisie rather than her parents, directors McGehee and Siegel cleverly step around melodrama in a few ways. When her parents have nasty screaming matches or sling verbal barbs at each other, rather than focusing on those characters, they are heard in the background as the camera stays with Maisie sleeping or playing. There are also very few scenes where huge fights, arguments or major emotional scenes feel over the top. A very delicate touch is present throughout the film, never more apparent than in the wonderfully understated moments where Maisie is heartbreakingly neglected. Part of what makes “What Maisie Knew” so effective is that the majority of what is shown in the film is firmly rooted in reality.
“What Maisie Knew” isn’t exactly uplifting. It is clear throughout the film that Maisie, while certainly loved by her parents, is being used as a tool for them to get back at each other. A lack of communication and effort often leaves Maisie in terrible situations or the responsibility of taking care of her dumped off to her respective stepparent. What makes “Maisie” such a beautiful film is showing that a child’s unconditional love is infectious and though sometimes aided by ignorance and obliviousness, how strong and perseverant a child can be in such painful circumstances.