What Maisie Knew

Once again, the smaller, niche film triumphs. Be gone Hollywood blockbusters like The Great Gatsbywith all its OTT schmaltz and glitz, bienvenue grade A acting from an ensemble ranging from the famous to the unknown.

I was not sure how Henry James’s eponymous short story would transfer to a contemporary custody battle.  But by telling the story from Maisie’s perspective the directors effortlessly pull off a memorable adaptation without resorting to costume drama.

Maisie has the misfortune to be the child of two of the most dysfunctional, selfish parents you could meet; sadly we probably know people like them – too self absorbed to concentrate on their child, relying on nannies and blame to let them off the hook of responsibility.  Maisie is a quiet, withdrawn little girl, with soulful eyes, who barely says a word, and loses herself in her world of Barbie and My Little Pony when the shouting gets too much. We see her peeking round doors, taking on board there’s an epic battle going on, and retreating into a better, safer place.

Julianne Moore is the aging rock star mother, a brave role for her as she is in fact a devoted wife and mother in real life; this bravura performance should surely get her an Oscar nomination. Her roller coaster of a relationship with Maisie is a triumph, at once smothering and arms length, loving only when it fits in with her schedule, and wrathful to the point of insanity with her roué husband, art-dealer Beale. 

Steve Coogan is in suitably oleaginous and maverick form – he’s not an actor I like so I find him well suited to be a repellent and very part-time father. The couple’s inevitable separation introduces two new people into Maisie’s life – their new partners: the one Margo, the nanny – a convincing performance by Dancing on the Edgeactress Joanna Vanderham; the other hunky groupie–cum-barman Lincoln, winningly played by Swedish AlexanderSkarsgård.

The riveting centrepiece of the film is the unfolding relationship between Maisie and her new carers; omniscient little Maisie seems to weave a cunning magic around the trio and holds the two of them in her thrall. Watching Lincoln transforming from a drugged-up loser, always late for delegated school pick-ups, into a caring and loving adult is mesmerising and a joy to watch, as are Maisie’s heart-breaking acts of trust, often misplaced, as she slips her little hand into that of the adult who is supposedly in charge. The first time she takes Lincoln’s hand is pure magic. 

The Directors have skillfully shot most of the film at Maisie’s eye level, so we really are seeing the world from her point of view. We hardly ever hear the beginning or end of a quarrel, just the snippets she would hear when she goes to check up on her parents.

In a funny sort of way the film is a thriller, because it is so unclear if Maisie will triumph over her adversity: whether the parents’ self-obsessions will end in disaster for Maisie; the horrible sick feeling when Susanna dumps her outside Lincoln’s bar without even checking if he’s there; when Beale toys with spiriting her away…its all heartrendingly nail-biting and adds a desirable edge to what could have been a sentimental story.As for Onata Aprile, who plays Maisie – well, all I can say is, wow! Gamine and tiny, a girl of few words but haunting expressions – full of self-knowledge, and faux innocence, stalwartly playing make-believe when her world is crumbling, Aprile is enthralling to watch. In New York, her mum dresses her as a rock chick, in clunky boots and trendy short skirts and tops; the boots give way to tennis shoes, the silly clothes to gingham dresses as she regains her lost childhood. Skillfully and touchingly pulled off, a little masterpiece.

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