Although based on Henry James’ 1897 novel What Maisie Knew is a very modern story, one of divorce and children being the collateral damage.
Six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the daughter of rock star mum Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer dad Beale (Steve Coogan). The two big egos clash loudly, disregarding the presence of their daughter who finds peace with nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham). Maisie spends her day peering around corners, listing to abusive shouting and avoiding being caught in the middle.
When her parents finally split the courts decide that Maisie is live with both parents and is chauffeured back and forth between them. Although both parents fight for sole custody it becomes obvious that Maisie is more of an inconvenience that anything else.
Bizarrely both parents decide the only option is to marry, philandering dad hooks up with the much younger nanny Margo and narcissist mum weds handsome bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård).
Bouncing between the two unlikely couples Maisie becomes more and more neglected by her parents and finds better, more loving replacements in her stepparents.
What Maisie Knew is a delicate film that lives for its tiny lead actress Onata Aprile. She is in every scene, peering out, watching the adults who dictate her world. We see the story from her point of view, the camera held low to the ground letting the viewer see the child’s perspective.
Both Moore and Coogen are good as the self-obsessed parents who believe they love their child but are unwilling to sacrifice their needs for hers.
Skarsgård breaks away from his normal roles and succeeds in being unusually vulnerable and naïve, his Swedish accent and extreme height adding too his charm as he plays with the little girl.
Scottish actress Vanderham is endearing and her attachment to Maisie as Margo feels real and very emotional. With her lilting accent and petit figure she is the perfect counterpart to Skarsgård.
What Maisie Knew may not be an exact replica of the book, but the story is told well and is beautifully filmed by directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel. The viewer gets pulled in and emotionally attacked to Maisies fate, always hoping that the tiny protagonist comes out unscathed.