What Maisie Knew reminds me of a quote from Rodrigo Garcia’s HBO drama In Treatment. When cancer survivor April (Allison Pill) suggests leaving the safety of her therapy sessions so that she can start experiencing life again, getting back into the world where she now belongs again, therapist Paul (Gabriel Byrne) imparts this piece of insight, partly as a ploy to keep her working through her problems in therapy but also as a way of saying goodbye and praising the changed woman he sees before him. When he tells her that ‘ the thing about self knowledge is, once you have it, you have it’ you know her life is going to be, her cancer won’t come back, her life will be full of joy, heartbreak and everything that will make it great.
Maisie (Onata Aprile) is a girl who like April cannot see the potential she has, the charm and wit usually associated with someone older and more experienced is seen bright as day in the young girl, a mixture of playful optimism and heartwarming naivety. The film tells the story of Maisie’s self discovery of the damaging nature of her family life, that the lack of real parental figures is having a negative influence on this gifted child. While the journey isn’t a smooth one, it’s one of importance and beauty.
When Maisie finds her life upended by her mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and her father Beale’s (Steve Coogan) unpleasant separation she is introduced to two new figures in her life, her ex nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) who is now seeing Beale and Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), Susanna’s new boyfriend, two people whose influence on Maisie push her on to her own self discovery.
While Vanderham is a wonderful casting choice its Skarsgard who really comes into his own as Lincoln, an easy living bartender thrust into sudden fatherhood, forced to rearrange his life for a girl he barely knows. He brings a sense of self worth to Maisie as he proves to be one of the few people, let alone adults, who truly cares for her. The pairing of Coogan and Moore is unexpected but not entirely unwelcome. Coogan and Moore are a mess of insecurities and self delusion. From Susanna lying to herself that she is still relevant and vibrant to Beale pretending he still belongs in New York and more importantly Maisie’s life.
Their very public court battle is an exercise in punishing each other with Maisie being the tool to do so. For instance when Susanna and Maisie head to a meeting with an adjudicator Susanna tells her of the time Beale threw her across a room. The film never answers whether this actually happened but it proves vital to understanding Susanna, an aging rock star whose obsession with her reputation blinds her from realizing the damage she is doing to those who she can’t love the way she is supposed to.
As the film progresses the idea of family is toyed with as Maisie becomes a human boomerang, a childrens toy used and thrown away only to unfortunately come back. Beale lays the charm on thick for his little girl but you get the feeling its all empty sentiment, things society has taught him to say, not something he should. His interactions with Maisie are always monitored by Margo except for one scene during the 3rd act. He is depicted as a weight on Maisie, a stranger who is all glitz and glamour but one who vanishes just as quickly as he appeared.
The strange thing about the film however is it never makes judgements. Susanna and Beale are horrible parents (my own personal judgement) but the film never emphasises it, it flows out naturally. In fact if anything you sympathize with both of them, two characters incapable of love because its been so long since they have seen or felt it.
Based on a book published in 1897 by Henry James, What Maisie Knew is perfectly transplanted into modern day New York City and its characters crackle in much the same way as Maisie’s parents hunt for prestige turns into a quest for reputation and meaning. The effects their search have on Maisie remains the same and as the film follows Maisie through this uncomfortable and shocking transitional period it really highlights how despite the technology, the culture and the world today have changed, people and their devestating effect on their children never will.
Filmed perfectly as to give the film an improvised feel, the film concentrates on Maisie as every moment of the film follows her, her journey as cameras are placed at her height and we follow her through long corridors as she spies on her parents in a way only a child can. The innocence on display is oddly a vice, something that could ruin Maisie forever, especially under either Susanna or Beale’s roof.
The innocence of Lincoln and Margo also leaves them open targets for their signature abuse as Susanna becomes jealous of Lincoln’s connection to Maisie and Margo is abandoned by Beale on a regular occasion. It’s a picture about damage and while the films consequences prove light the devastation is easy to see.
Written with care and featuring one of the finest performances from a child actor in the last 5 years, What Maisie Knew is quiet, effective storytelling that is visually understated but full of hidden metaphors and ideas to be discovered on repeat viewings, something you will want to do, I assure you.