WHAT MAISIE KNEW is a contemporary New York City re-visioning of the Henry James novel by the same name, written by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne. It revolves around unwitting 7-year-old Maisie, caught in the middle of a custody battle between her mother Suzanna, an aging rock star, and her father, Beale, a major art dealer. In a race to win the court's advantage, Beale marries Maisie's nanny Margo, prompting Suzanna in turn to marry friend and local bartender, Lincoln. Both forced into a battle neither wishes to be a part of, Margo and Lincoln come to empathize with Maisie's position and over time with one another's. Teased by the notion of making their own surrogate family, the trio must either submit to the will of Maisie's parents or eventually face their wrath.Written by
Fortissimo Films [nl]
It always amazes me when I see a really impressive child acting performance. This is one of an impressive collective of films where a young performer has been quite outstanding. But there is something of an important difference between this one and most others. While the likes of Tatum O'Neal (Paper Moon), Ivana Baquero (Pan's Labyrinth) or Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) were all brilliant, none of them were as young as Onata Aprile. When you consider that at her age she simply will be incapable of understanding all the nuances of the screenplay, it makes it all the more outstanding just how good she is. She doesn't really say a whole lot but her looks convey massive amounts of meaning. Her performance is so natural that it reminds me of kid's drawings – so unaffected, unpretentious and instinctive that adults can never faithfully replicate them. The acting by the entire cast here is top calibre but at times like this you cannot compete and Onata Aprile easily steals the show.
It's quite a disturbing story really. Maisie is a neglected child and it's not very pleasant seeing her be passed around from pillar to post being essentially disregarded. The view the film adopts is a child's one. We see Maisie peeking round corners, in the periphery watching, seeing but never fully comprehending but understanding more than she is given credit for. She seems to know more about right and wrong than her parents do, for example. They are in worlds of their own, ignoring their little girl in order to play out their own self-obsessed games. Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore are very good in these unsympathetic roles in which they make you understand why they are like the way they are without making us actually sympathise with them.
The film works so well because it's given such an unsentimental treatment. The story unfolds subtly and believably and it avoids saccharine. While Maisie's parents are the bad guys of the piece they're not really villains as such, just extremely poor parents and very selfish people generally. As it turns out, it's the parent's new partners who are left increasingly in charge of the little girl and they are slowly drawn towards each other too. Collectively they make for an actual workable and loving family unit. Both Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham are also great as these much more sympathetic adults. Events ultimately progress to an ending that was upbeat without sacrificing believability; it's simultaneously inconclusive yet hopeful. I suppose one of the messages of What Maisie Knew is that what is important is what is best for the child, not what is convenient for blood parents.
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