Directed by: Scott McGehee, David Siegel | 95 minutes | drama | Actors: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Joanna Vanderham, Onata Aprile, Sadie Rae, Jesse Stone Spadaccini, Diana García, Amelia Campbell, Maddie Corman, Paddy Croft, Trevor Long, Emma Holzer, Nadia Gan, Samantha Buck
Henry James wrote about the tragic consequences that a divorce has on the child in his book “What Maisie Knew” in 1897, but he probably did not expect his book to be so topical in 2013. In today’s society, one out of every three marriages ends in divorce, so the issue is certainly still the order of the day.
It is the task of the somewhat unknown director duo Scott McGehee & David Siegel to turn this classic book into a modern film adaptation. Among others, Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgård (known from the TV series “True Blood”) are part of the cast that should help them with this.
Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the seven-year-old daughter of over the hill rock singer Susanna (Julianne Moore) and industrious art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan). Now that arguing is the main activity of their relationship, the decision is made to divorce. Shortly after the divorce, Beale marries childminder Margo (Joanna Vanderham) in order to obtain custody of Maisie. In response, Susanna marries bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård).
After the prestigious battle for custody of Maisie, Beale spends most of his time abroad and Susanna decides to revive her music career. It is now up to stepparents Margo and Lincoln to take on the education of Maisie with all the consequences that entails.
The ones most affected in divorces are the children. What Maisie Knew illustrates this point in a clear but painful way. It is not always clear what the underlying cause of the many quarrels in the film are, because we experience everything from the point of view of the young Maisie.
All the more impressive is the performance of the young Onata Aprile, who manages to portray Maisie as a fully-fledged character. As a viewer, it is almost impossible not to share in the misery she undergoes as a result of her incompetent parents.
Julianne Moore is convincing as the unstable mother who suffocates Maisie over and over and expresses her love only in words. Like his role in the movie, Steve Coogan is mostly absent. The times he appears on the scene there is the hope that he will finally see that work is not everything in life and give in to his natural fatherhood skills.
This hope is soon dashed when Maisie is tossed back and forth between surrogate parents Lincoln and Margo as material possession. Kudos here too for the casting, especially Alexander Skarsgård as Lincoln is impressive. After some other supporting roles and his popular role in “True Blood”, the Swede proves here that he is ready for the big work.
Screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Caroll Cartwright have done an outstanding job of translating Henry James’ book into contemporary New York in a contemporary way. The use of matching music and beautiful cinematography completes the picture. Sometimes, especially at the end, the film leans towards the gooey, but the poignant reality of the situation keeps this at bay.
“What Maisie Knew” is a moving portrait that strikingly shows the perspective of a child in divorce. It also undeniably shows that not everyone is suitable for parenthood.