Directors: David Siegel, Scott McGehee
Cast: Onata Aprile, Steve Coogan, Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Vanderham
Watch What Maisie Knew online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
It’s not easy to tell a story from a child’s point of view. Henry James proved that when he wrote What Maisie Knew, the tale of a young daughter caught in the middle of a petty divorce. In his typically verbose way, he presented every tick of Maisie’s mental cogs in painstaking detail, chronicling a cognitive coming of age with the irony and vocabulary of a 54 year old man – and barely a thought to whether a six year old girl would know words like “objurgation”.
It’s an endearingly ungainly narrative perspective, but how can David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s translate that to the screen? Really well, it turns out.
They start but using the word “know” as often as possible. “Where did these flowers come from, Maisie?” asks her nanny, Margo (Vanderham). “I don’t know,” shrugs back the quiet Onata Aprile. Stuck in the middle of their split, her business-obsessed dad, Beale (Coogan), and her failed rock star mum, Susannah (Moore), fight over who gets custody – not out of love, just so they can hurt each other.
At every stage of this back and forth, they demand knowledge from the young girl: who their ex-partner is seeing, what they’re doing, how badly they’re treating her. Her wide-eyed innocence doesn’t have all the answers. Instead, she learns other things: how to pay for pizza while her parents are fighting or how to go into a bar by herself to look for her mum’s new boyfriend.
It’s a heartbreaking journey of growing awareness, made even more so by the fact that we follow Maisie everywhere – barely a frame occurs in the film without her on screen. Arguments unfold from her perspective, the adults’ swearing and shouting fading into the background as she walks off to tip the delivery boy or pretend to be sleeping.
That physical proximity makes up for the lack of psychological exposition – Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright’s smart, understated script wisely avoids voiceover or narration. Instead, Maisie’s coming of age is communicated through her face: a disarmingly natural performance, the young Aprile goes from blank naivety to a determined smile with an irresistible sincerity.
James’ wry detachment is oddly mirrored by Siegel and McGehee’s intimate camera, which squats in the corner of Susannah’s drunken parties and lets its informed audience judge their behaviour. “Do you mind? I have a kid here! What the fuck?” yells Susannah as they shout in the middle of the street. Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore are fantastically terrible, reeking of self-absorbed carelessness before trying to buy their way into their daughter’s affection’s with a present and a smile. “I was just like you,” her mum adds during one awkward embrace. Like Maisie, you wonder what she’s been drinking.
The conflicted adults create a harsh world that feels sadly believable. The only likeable ones are Joanna Vanderham’s adorable nanny and, surprisingly, Alexander Skarsgard’s softly-spoken Lincoln, Susannah’s young squeeze. Can they offer a more stable, caring home for the young girl? The film may not be very subtle in its contrast of the two couples, but it’s not a story about that: it’s about Maisie. And What Maisie Knew nails that childlike perspective superbly. A universal tale of adults screwing up kids, whether you’re in 19th Century London or modern New York, Maisie’s coming of age carries a huge emotional punch. One thing we do know? This is really worth seeing.
What Maisie Knew is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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