What Maisie Knew is a wonderful film, intense, moving and funny at times. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, What Maisie Knew is based on the novel of the same title by Henry James, and is about the destructive power of irresponsible parents on the life of a child. What is unusual about the film is that the perspective is that of the child Maisie. Played with a sweet, innocent and lost look by Onata Aprile in what I can only describe as an incredible performance. Onata was only six years old when the filming took place. Yet she is undoubtedly the heart and star of the film. Amazing! The whole cast is very good though. Steve Coogan plays Beale, the father, a wealthy art dealer. Apparently caring, he is seen most of the time on the phone arranging deals or getting in and out of taxis. It very quickly emerges that he has very little if any, love or affection for his daughter. Very deadpan acting with little emotion, Coogan is perfect for the role.
The mother, Susanna, played by Julianne Moore, is an ageing rock star. She is a much more volatile character, who does show real emotional attachment to her daughter. But alas this is only in very limited doses, when she is sober and not on a rock tour. Most of the time she shockingly just leaves Maisie to fend for herself. In one especially frightening scene she is left in the middle of New York, late at night in a bar. Moore is very convincing in her portrayal of Susanna as a trully mixed up person. At times all lively, smiling and full of tenderness. But underneath she is just as cold and calculating and uncaring as her husband.
Luckily for little Maisie, in the midst of this chaos and irresponsibility, she finds love and care from elsewhere. Margo, played by Scottish actress Joanna Vanderham, is firstly Maisie’s nanny and then the wife of her father. However this marriage does not last any time at all. Lincoln, played by Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård, is a bartender who Susanna chooses to be her new husband. But like Margo, this marriage has an equally short life span. However it does mean that both Margo and Lincoln find themselves at different times having to look after Maisie. When Maisie is eventually left all alone by her parents it is Margo and Lincoln who come to her rescue and provide a safe, caring and loving home for her.
Shot mainly in a dark, soulless and at times menacing New York the filming reinforces the sense of foreboding which dominates the film. Only at the end when Maisie and Margo and Lincoln move out to the seaside is much light brought into the film. The real strength of the film is that it relentlessly shows us the world and its strange happenings solely from the viewpoint of Maisie. Nothing is ever explained. She is just left here or there and someone else comes along. She has to work out her own way of adjusting to all this. Much of the camerawork is at her height level, which emphasizes how awkward the world can be for a child. A fascinating film with great performances from all and an amazing performance from Onata Aprile.