What Maisie Knew is an adaptation of the Henry James 1897 novel, updated to Manhattan in the now, and is described in the bumf I received as ‘heart-warming’, which is utterly strange, as it’s a child-caught-in-the-middle drama, and just so painful. It’s compelling. It’s exquisitely done. It’s brilliantly acted. (According to the most recent figures, the chances of Julianne Moore turning in a duff performance are 0.00 per cent.) But it’s not a comfortable watch, which should not put you off, of course. There must be discomfort at the cinema just as there is discomfort in life, as Socrates might have said, if he had lived to experience film. (He also never had the opportunity to say: ‘You can’t be too picky in August,’ which is a pity, as it might have been the truest thing he ever said.)
The central couple in Maisie are Susanna (Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan, which is a bit surreal, having just seen him as Alan Partridge, but you’ll get over it), who have a seven-year-old daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile; seriously). Susanna and Beale are constantly at each other’s throats, and are self-absorbed, useless parents. They may say ‘Mommy loves you more than anything, you know that?’ Or: ‘Daddy loves you more than anything, you know that?’ but they don’t love Maisie more than they love themselves, or when preoccupied elsewhere. They miss school pick-ups, abandon her about town, and we know Maisie is used to this by the way she navigates lobbies, or pays the pizza man at the door, and accomplishes other tasks that should be beyond her sophistication, but aren’t. Susanna and Beale divorce, and a custody battle ensues during which the two use her to hurt the other. The poison keeps coming. ‘Mummy is on a big tour,’ Maisie tells her father. ‘Not that big, from what I’ve heard,’ says her father.
This is at its most crude. Or, to put it another way, this isn’t some kind of Kramer vs. Kramer. Our focal point throughout is Maisie, and Maisie is mesmerising: dark-eyed, watchful, accepting. She loves her parents in the way dogs love their owners; that is, no matter how badly they might behave, or what cruelties they might mete out. This is about the grace of childhood, if you like, and the shabbiness of adulthood. The adult relationships shift. Beale marries Maisie’s young nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) — the one wrong note in this film is what she sees in him, as she’s very nice — and Susanna marries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender (also too nice; the other wrong note). The dynamics go this way and that, as does Maisie, until the very final scene when, at last, she digs her heels in. Go, Maisie, go!
It’s a painful film because only we see all the ways in which Maisie is betrayed, over and over. Her parents don’t see it. Maisie possibly can, but is too young to understand. I don’t know where the directors (Scott McGehee and David Siegel) discovered Miss Aprile, or how they elicited her performance but, my God, she knocks it out the court. Over and over. The thing is, she seems so utterly natural, and her scenes with Moore (the latest figures, which are even more recent than the ones cited above, confirm the chances of Moore turning in a duff performance are 0.0 per cent) are riveting: horrific, I suppose, but still riveting. This is a film that knows what it’s doing and if, ultimately, the tying up of loose ends feels too pat, and the ending too sentimental, remind yourself of what Socrates might have said but didn’t: you just can’t be too picky in August.