Maisie is quite a little girl, considering that many children at her age cannot deal well with such a tough situation like hers. She probably does not entirely understand how her life is changing, but she remains rather calm and quiet in her innocent way while we observe the situation through her little narrow view. Regardless of how much she is aware of what is happening around her, we know there is nothing much she can do in her position, and we naturally come to worry about whether there will be any stable environment for her in the end.
Based on Henry James’s 1897 novel, “What Maisie Knew” tells us how Maisie’s comfortable life is disrupted through her parents’ sudden divorce, and one interesting thing about the movie is that the adapted screenplay written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright moves the story background from the late 19th Century to our time. That does not feel like a big stretch to us, because divorce has become a far more ordinary thing since James’ novel was published while the human matters associated with it still feel timeless to us.
For some reason which is not explained well, Maisie’s parents have a big fight at their home in the beginning, and we soon see how their home life at some luxurious Manhattan apartment is crumbled step by step during a short time. Susanna(Julianne Moore), who is an aging rock singer, changes the lock of the front door to keep her art dealer husband(Steve Coogan) out of the apartment at one point, and then we see a bitter custody battle between them as they are going through divorce process.
Stuck between her parents for a while in this mess, Maisie(Onata Aprile) looks helpless to us at times, but it seems she accepts the inevitable change in her life. Young kids like her would feel understandably confused or angry about that, but it looks like Maisie is floated above the situation like an innocent observer. She gets along well with her schoolmates as usual, and she quickly adapts to her new home to live with her father, though she is not so happy to know that her mother is not going to live with her.
As the time goes by, we see more changes coming into Maisie’s daily life. Not long after it is shown that there is something going on between her dad and her kind Scottish nanny Margo(Joanna Vanderham), her dad re-introduces Margo to Maisie as his girlfriend, and she soon becomes Maisie’s stepmother. In case of Susanna, she marries a young bartender named Lincoln(Alexander Skarsgård), and, because she mostly occupies herself with reviving her old career, Lincoln is usually the one who takes care of Maisie just like Margo does instead of Maisie’s father, who is busy with his work all the time.
Lincoln and Margo meet each other for the first time at Maisie’s school through coincidence, and it does not take a minute for us to see that it is a sort of Meet Cute scene between them. As we see more about how lousy Maisie’s biological parents are to Maisie, we also begin to notice a certain possibility while Lincoln and Margo respectively spend time with Maisie; when they all walk around the city together, they do look like a real family as enjoying each other’s company.
I have not read Henry James’ novel, but I can say that the directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel did a good job of sticking us to Maisie’s view throughout their film. The camera is frequently set to her viewpoint, so our view is usually limited to what she heard or saw. The conflicts between the adult characters around her are glimpsed briefly as Maisie passes by or faintly conveyed through the muffled arguments from outside as she is in her room, but we can easily guess what is going on – and what is going to happen to her sooner or later.
The movie depends a lot on its child actress Onata Aprile, and McGehee and Siegel drew a splendid natural performance from Aprile. Maisie may be a little too good to be realistic because of her precocious attitude, but Aprile brings considerable believability to her character, and we constantly care about her and her welfare – especially when she is temporarily put into the care of a total stranger later in the story,
Aprile is supported well by the adult performers surrounding her. While Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham have a nice subdued chemistry as two different people who really look like more suitable parents compared to their respective spouses, Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore inject a little does of humanity into their pretty unlikable characters. Coogan, who begins to show his more serious side recently, has a small nice scene with Aprile, and he ably balances his character between concern and selfishness during that scene. While I came to dislike Moore’s character more than before in the end, Moore brings some degrees of understanding into her pathetically self-absorbed character, and she is very good in a crucial scene where she realizes how she has screwed up things again and then makes a sensible choice for her daughter.
“What Maisie Knew” is a sensitive domestic drama equipped with good direction and nice performances, and I cared and worried about its little heroine while watching it. You may complain that its ending is too neat and predictable, but the movie makes us want it to happen through its good storytelling, and we are glad to see that she will be all right – at least for now.