Aug 262013

Based on the 1897 novel of the same name by Henry James, What Maisie Knew is the experience of a family breakdown from the perspective of the child at the center of it all. With selfish parents using her as a pawn or neglecting her altogether, she struggles to understand why the people and things she loves are changing. My review of What Maise Knew after the jump.

Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the only child of rock singer, Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer, Beale (Steve Coogan). She’s a bright and inquisitive child, who appears to be very creative and enjoys interacting with others. Maisie’s world changes drastically when Susanna changes the locks on their apartment, shutting Beale out of their house and their marriage. Beale moves into an apartment with Maisie’s nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and the two marry soon after; while Susanna enters into a relationship with the much younger Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). Within a short time frame (which isn’t specified, but we can guess less than a year), everything Maisie once knew, is now different. Her parents can’t speak to each other without yelling, they have new partners and Maisie now has two homes which she is shuttled between. What is a child of 5 or 6 supposed to make of all of this?

What makes What Maisie Knew such an interesting and often emotional film, is that the story is exclusively from Maisie’s perspective. We’re not privy to private conversations held when she’s not around and we are not invited into the adult world – we experience the events exactly as she does. Maisie overhears things she shouldn’t, walks into conversations mid-way through and lies in bed at night listening to the sounds around her. She certainly doesn’t get the full picture, but from her fractured perspective, she knows and understands more than she probably should. This is a unique look into the world from a child’s viewpoint, and it’s one which shows both how impressionable and how resilient, they can be.

Maisie, who is in every scene, is played wonderfully by Onata Aprile, and it’s largely thanks to her performance that the film succeeds to the extent it does. Most of what we learn about Maisie and her feelings are through her facial expressions and body language in reaction to events. There is a beautiful and fragile innocence in her performance – a naïvety that can’t be replicated. From the very start we’re invested in this child, and the confusion and hurt she feels becomes our own. Julianne Moore is excellent as the irresponsible Susanna; while Alexander Skarsgård has no doubt melted a few hearts with his performance as the quiet, gentle Lincoln.

While the upper class family and their wealth and lifestyle may be unfamiliar and alienating to many, at the heart of the film lies a [sadly] common domestic issue. This is the story of a family breakdown – the fights, the name-calling, the split homes and torn alliances. What Maisie Knew is one child’s experience of the confusing and often lonely ordeal that it can be.


By Sam McCosh

The Facts

Director(s): Scott McGehee & David Siegel
Writer(s): Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright (screenplay), Henry James (based on the novel by)
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Steve Coogan, Onata Aprile
Runtime: 99 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: August 22 2013