Starring: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård
You may like this if you like: The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010), The Deep End (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 2001), L’enfant (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2005)
As her parents (Moore and Coogan) go through a divorce they both endure a bitter fight for custody of their seven year old daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile). However, it becomes clear that it is not the love of their daughter that motivates them, but a simple wish to get one over the other. As Maisie is caught in the middle of a tug-of-war it becomes obvious (but not necessarily to her) that neither parent actually wants the responsibility of looking after their own daughter. As part of their bitter feud, Maisie’s father marries her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) while her mother marries a much younger man called Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), the motivation for both marriages also seemingly to be completely out of spite. As they also suffer from their respective betrothed’s selfish personalities, both Margo and Lincoln are left to often solely look after Maisie and she forms a strong bond with the both of them. However, with her control freak parents still wanting to have custody but not the responsibility, and with little understanding of what is happening to her, Maisie seemingly struggles to find the love she deserves.
I personally have not read the 1897 novel, but for me What Maisie Knew takes what is a seemingly simple modern day story, and turns into a devastating and deeply involving examination of both extremes of human kindness and selfishness. It is both an impeccably made and superbly acted drama that truly grips from start to finish, evoking so many feelings from the viewer along the way. This could have easily developed into cheesy cliché, but the story is told with such a raw and brutal honesty that makes it emotionally involving and superior to so many dramas of a similar genre or subject.
I am not sure from what perspective the book is written, but everything in the film is told from Maisies perspective; we only ever see every conversation, phone call or argument that Maisie sees or overhears. The dialogue itself is very naturalistic too, making every plot development feel natural and never contrived.
The people in Maisie’s life constantly run the risk of being clichéd and contrived caricatures, but thankfully in the hands of an excellent script and superb performances this is skilfully avoided in my view. Julianne Moore often excels in her more challenging roles, and as Maisie’s fading rock star mother I did find myself feeling sorry for her as she was so deluded, selfish but ultimately a tragic human being in what for me is an Oscar worthy performance. Coogan gives arguably one of his best turns as Maisie’s globetrotting art dealer father in what is turning out to be a vintage year for him. Skarsgård and Vanderham were given arguably the most challenging roles, as it would have been so easy to over emphasise their character’s traits as they become almost the surrogate parents. They however underplay their roles perfectly making all plot developments feel genuine and natural. Onata Aprile gives a perfectly naturalistic performance as Maisie, again perfectly underplaying a character who is struggling to understand the reason behind both her parents’ actions. The intense close ups sometimes feeling genuinely uncomfortable as we share the feelings of these characters.
As the narrative develops, McGehee and Siegel expertly avoid over sentimentalising proceedings and provide an ending that is both appropriate and genuinely moving. In my view, What Maisie Knew is a film that will bring you genuine frustration, anger and happiness, it is a film that is sometimes difficult to watch, but one that is extremely involving from start to finish.
What Maisie Knew is not only expertly made and a master class in acting, but also one of the years more emotionally engaging and rewarding family dramas.