What Maisie Knew could actually be called Matilda. The former is an adaptation of the Henry James novel but it also shares a lot in common with the latter, Roald Dahl book. There is the brilliant and mature-beyond-her-years little girl who has to take care of herself because her parents only do so when it’s convenient. Although both sets of parents are far too selfish and self-absorbed, both of these young darlings find the love and affection they should receive in people that aren’t their family.
The James novel was written in 1897 and at the time he was chronicling and criticising the rich in British society. At the time, writing about a divorce and joint-custody battle would’ve been considered a very novel thing. These days marriage breakdowns are more commonplace and it’s a scary thought that this story still has applicability.
Instead of the glitterati in England, here the parents are a bunch of Bohemians from Manhattan. There’s the psychotic mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore) who’s an aging rock star and on the verge of a mid-life crisis. The bastard father, Beale (Steve Coogan) is a business-obsessed, art dealer whose idea of child-bonding is to take a six year old out for an espresso.
Onata Aprile plays the lead and title role and does an excellent job. The film rests on her tiny shoulders and much of this dramatic story is told from her young perspective. Her parents’ arguments are background noise to her playing and the two are in an all-out tit-for-tat battle for her. Except when each of them has the opportunity to parent her, neither wants to take responsibility. Her father willingly leaves her with a doorman while her mother drops her off outside a restaurant where a friend could be inside.
Beale gets into a new relationship with the nanny (Joanna Vanderham). He marries her and almost immediately, Susana takes up with and marries one of her groupies, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård– who plays a warm-if-naïve-nice guy that is a million miles away from his role as Eric the Vampire in True Blood). Both of Maisie’s parents’ significant others are younger, blonder and kinder people. They pick up the slack and form lasting attachments with the girl as they can see how precious, bright and lively she is.
There isn’t a lot to the actual plot of this story. It’s basically about two dead-beat, dysfunctional parents shunting their vulnerable, little girl back and forth. The mother plays manipulative and emotional games and the proceedings share a few things in common with the misery memoirs that focus on abuse and neglect. But Maisie – to her credit – takes their toxic ways in her stride. There are no temper tantrums, just a single tear she sheds that shows how their carelessness is affecting her.
What Maisie Knew is ultimately a sad and unnerving family melodrama set against a beautiful New York City backdrop. It’s full of excellent, down-to-earth performances and is a subtle tale. At times it’s a little too one-note and perhaps would’ve been better suited as a TV special rather than a feature length film. It tackles a serious but still applicable subject and uses a sensitive hand to create a close observation of unconditional love, sacrifice and the importance of family.
Originally published on 20 June 2013 at the following website:
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