I was fourteen when my parents separated. I remember it well: Dad’s sudden and ambiguous departure; the weeks of court proceedings during which Mum would come home every day in tears; the years of acting as a go-between, dodging cryptic questions and interpreting vague responses as one parent mined for information about the other; and, most difficult of all, my struggle to come to terms with my father’s mistress, whom he would later marry.
But I was lucky, in many ways. As a teenager, I was old enough to understand what was happening around me, and to remain stable in one home rather than be ricocheted between two households in a messy shared custody arrangement. I had a parent – at least one – that I could truly rely on and, truth be told, I’d known the fracture was coming for some time. Still it was hard. I can’t imagine how I’d have coped as a young child, how I’d have even begun to make sense of it all.
Seven-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) makes sense of it as best she can. Her parents, ageing rocker Susanna (Julianne Moore) and disinterested art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) are two people firmly in the grip of their own narcissism, too concerned with their mid-life crises to make compromises for the well-being of their daughter. When they finally separate, Maisie’s already volatile home life collapses, and she becomes a pawn in their underhanded custody battle; for the sake of custodial leverage, both remarry younger partners for whom they have little affection (Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham), and Maisie is tossed unpredictably from one guardian to the next as her situation becomes increasingly complicated.
What Maisie Knew is a modern-day adaptation of Henry James’ 1897 novel of the same name, and as the title suggests, Maisie is very much the subject of the film. The entire narrative is told from her perspective – through her wandering and silent observation, we see glimpses of the extremely flawed parents that drift nebulously around her. All the rapid, unpredictable changes in her life are presented to us in the sugarcoated half-truths and non-explanations that adults give to young children. Yet the film is concerned with what Maisie knows and not simply what she sees; she is, for all her innocence, a very perceptive girl, and quickly comes to understand just which of the adults in her life she can and cannot trust.
The success of the film, as you might then expect, rests heavily on the performance of Maisie’s Onata Aprile, and she’s exceptional in the role. I was truly astonished that a seven-year-old could handle this material so maturely – her joy is so organic, her tears and moments of despondency so real. She carries herself every bit as capably as the veteran actors that form her supporting cast. Julianne Moore is the other absolute stand-out, which should come as no surprise – as far as I can recall, the woman has never given a bad performance in anything.
Steve Coogan and Joanna Vanderham are both excellent as well, as is Alexander Skarsgård, who, despite being a chiselled Nordic giant, brings to his role a stooped, playful, childish awkwardness. The scenes in which he connects with Maisie are just beautiful to watch.
It is scenes such as these, in fact, that allow the movie to carefully avoid tones of absolute despair. While the story is filled with heart-wrenching moments (during one horrific scene, she wakes in an alien apartment filled with pot-smoking strangers), it never succumbs to melancholy or melodrama – Maisie is a jubilant character, and the film’s outlook is ultimately a hopeful one. And while one could easily dismiss Susanna and Beale as monstrously irresponsible caretakers, they do both love Maisie in their own tragic way; Moore’s Susanna in particular offers a small but touching act of redemption at the film’s conclusion.
It speaks to the timelessness of Henry James’ novel that its subject matter – the hardships children endure at the centre of a broken relationship – could be adapted to film well over a century later and still remain as relevant and emotionally striking. What Maisie Knew is a powerful work of cinema, led by understated direction, accomplished performances and a truly gifted newcomer; I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing more of Onata Aprile in future.