Cinema review: What Maisie Knew

By Suzanne Duffy, watching at Manchester’s Cornerhouse

What Maisie Knew is a film that took a big risk in relying so heavily on a child actor.

Luckily, with the casting of young Onata Aprile, the risk paid off a hundredfold.

Maisie is a six-year-old caught up in the divorce of her ex-rock star mother Susanna (Julienne Moore) and her jet-setting art dealer father Beale (Steve Coogan).

It is difficult to resist comparing her, with her youthful wisdom and unexpected maturity, to Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

Yet she is no child prodigy, simply a girl with an infinite capacity to love, despite her messy upbringing.

Aprile’s acting has a subtlety to it that is rare for her age – she says more through gestures and facial expressions than through words.

Maisie watches the disintegration of her parent’s marriage and their subsequent mistakes from behind railings and around doors left ajar.

Yet directing team Scott McGehee and David Siegel have effectively spliced uplifting vignettes between these scenes of arguments and bitterness.

Toy boats sailing on a pond, a kite stuck in telephone wires, an ornate ceiling in a courtroom: these shots embody moments of calm hope in Maisie’s otherwise chaotic life.

The beautiful soothing score by Nick Urata reflected the fact that Maisie is cool – and not in the way her guitar-playing mother keeps telling her.

The film gives the impression of an upside down family where adults act like children, and vice versa.

Moore is excellent as the jealous, insecure and petty Susanna, who treats Maisie more like her counsellor than her child.

Meanwhile Maisie serenely tells white lies to save her father from embarrassment and accepts her parent’s new love interests with equanimity.

Alexander Skarsgard is perfect as an awkward younger boyfriend of Maisie’s mother who is at first out of his depth looking after a child.

The believability of the unlikely bond that develops between them is testament to the skill of both Skarsgard and Aprile’s range.

There is little doubt that, although acting irresponsibly, her parents love her.

The problem is that they love themselves more.

Generally the performances of the four lead adults were nuanced enough to stave off accusations of cheesiness.

However, the final scenes did lose momentum a little and the use of slow motion in the last shot was forced and marred the ending.

Loosely based on a Henry James novel of the same name, What Maisie Knew captures the wry social commentary of James without becoming didactic.

Unique performances by gifted actors and a perceptive production team make this film a rare treat.

What Maisie Knew is screening at Manchester’s Cornerhouse this week, visit here for more details.

Image courtesy of Millenium Entertainment via YouTube, with thanks.

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