• Australian Catholic Bishops Conference
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What Maisie Knew

WHAT MAISIE KNEW. Starring Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham, and Alexander Skarsgard. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Rated M (Coarse language). 99 min.

This American family drama is based on Henry James’ 1897 novel, “What Maisie Knew”. James’ story has been transposed to modern-day Manhattan, New York City.

Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the only-child of two professional parents, Susanna (Julianne Moore), an ageing rock star, and Beale (Steve Coogan), an ambitious business-man. Both are too busy to spend much time with her. They are always away from home and are far happier giving Maisie presents than showing her real love. They fight, each of them has a lover, and they decide to divorce. Susanna chooses her young barman-boyfriend, Lincoln (Alexander Skargard) as her new partner, and the new partner for Beale is Maisie’s Scottish nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham). The selfishness of both Susann and Beale is obvious. Confused about what is happening around her, Maisie is the passive observer of her parent’s shameful behaviour, and shunted backwards and forwards, her relationship with them begins to disintegrate.

This is a powerful and moving film about dysfunctional relationships seen through the eyes of a young child. It offers us a thoughtful and heart-rending emotional drama about a child coming to understand that the love between her father and mother has died, and she herself must look to ways of trying to form a new existence. The acting in the movie is excellent. Onata Aprile is wonderful as the child trapped in the crossfire between two rejecting parents, and Julianne Moore lives up to her acting reputation as the mother who constantly attests her love but has too little time for her daughter, and whose needs always take precedence over those of her 6-yr. old child. Both Susanna and Beale are totally self-absorbed parents, and Moore and Coogan play their selfishness vividly to the hilt.

In the ensuing court battle for the custody of Maisie, both Susanna and Beale make it clear that they care more about hurting each other than about looking after Maisie’s welfare. To prove their advantage, Beale marries Margo, and Susanna marries Lincoln. While her parents are consumed with winning points against each other, Maisie looks for love elsewhere, and finds it in her parent’s new spouses. It is their love for her which is the anchor- point that allows her to start again.

The film makes it clear that Maisie knows what’s happening. She doesn’t complain, she internalises her grief, and the viewer is acutely conscious of the conflicts she is experiencing within. A single tear trickles down her face just once. But despite the unhappiness that surrounds Maisie, the movie maintains a spirit of optimism about Maisie’s future that is captured dramatically by Onata Aprile’s acting out of hope.

The film plays thoughtfully with a variety of major relationship issues such as the shaping of a child’s environment to satisfy adult needs, the nature of real love, how genuine love can be offered in ways that can be understood by a child, and how easily personal anguish can override the best intentions of affection. These themes are communicated humorously at times which enhance their poignancy. Lincoln goes to pick Maisie up from school, for example, and has to explain to her Principal that although he is her foster-parent he has met her only once before.  

The world this film shows is not as bleak as the world Henry James depicts in his novel. Although missing out on the novel’s final moral ambiguity, it is thoroughly involving and absorbing and the translation from nineteenth-century England to modern Manhattan works well. The film is wonderfully photographed and sensitively directed, and refreshingly free of all violence and the remotest sign of explicit sex.

The spirit of hope in this film tells us that, with time, Maisie may forget what she once knew. This is a tender, lovely movie about the discovery of new love. It captures the modern-day fragility of fractured relationships, and shows the consequences of love that is found missing, but arrives again.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Madman Entertainment.

Out August 22nd 2013.