Whether a cocaine snorting porn star in Boogie Nights, a money-grabbing trophy wife in Magnolia or an unfaithful lesbian mother in The Kids Are All Right, four-time Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore’s willingness to tackle unconventional or even somewhat unlikeable characters has helped establish the flame-haired actress as one of Hollywood’s most genuine and in-demand performers. In What Maisie Knew, Moore takes up the challenge again in playing Susanna, the self-absorbed and ineffectual mother of 6-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile). Focussed more on her career as a rock singer than the needs of her daughter, Susanna has few redeeming qualities and Moore embodies the selfish, neglectful nature of her personality with considerable skill. Directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee, What Maisie Knew is a contemporary take on the Henry James novel of the same name in which Maisie becomes the unwitting pawn in a custody battle between Susanna and her equally loathsome ex-husband Beale (Steve Coogan).
The movie presents the narrative from Maisie’s perspective, with the audience not privy to any more information than what Maisie possesses. She peers through windows and doorways and grabs snippets of muffled conversations in her effort to try and fathom exactly what is happening. We share the confusion and lack of understanding that Maisie endures, all of which she handles remarkably well. Young Aprile is terrific in the title role and it is the quality of her naturalistic performance – given that she is in every scene – that makes this film such a treat despite the appalling behaviour of those around her.
The film opens with the relationship between Susanna and Beale having already disintegrated to the point where Beale has been dismissed from the family home and the locks changed without his knowledge. From this point, court proceedings ensue as the two warring parents vie for custody even though both consider Maisie to be an inconvenience and treat her accordingly. Maisie becomes caught up in the constant attempts at one-upmanship as Susanna and Beale use their daughter as a pawn in their hostilities. It doesn’t take long before both Susanna and Beale remarry, enabling them to further abdicate their parenting responsibilities. Beale marries the much younger Margo (Joanna Vanderham), while Susanna weds bartender Lincoln (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard), a man she seems to hardly know who emerges as the only truly decent adult amongst them.
With Beale leaving New York to live in London and Susanna deciding to go on tour, there is little regard for Maisie and ultimately it is Lincoln and Margo who are left to fill the void. The way in which Susanna treats Maisie – all love and attention one minute, followed by long periods of absence and neglect – ultimately leaves the youngster to make some somewhat big decisions about her own future. Skarsgard is terrific as Lincoln, the only character whose love for Maisie seems unburdened by personal agendas or subject to the whims and mood fluctuations that emanate from everybody else in her life. Margo, meanwhile, initially presents as a selfish opportunist in marrying Beale until she realises the error of her ways and develops a strong bond with Maisie through their shared rejection.
Despite the emotional subject matter, What Maisie Knew is very restrained and never lapses into tearjerker territory. Whilst it is a searing examination of bad parenting, it moves at a brisk pace with a sunny disposition, primarily due to Aprile’s cute-without-being-cutesy portrayal of a young girl forced by circumstance be wise beyond her years. Whilst there is no doubt that several of the characters here are extremely unlikeable, it is hard not to admire the performances of Moore and Coogan in their roles. Yes, there is plenty to be angry about when you watch this, but ultimately the film leaves us with a sense of hope as the ending – which apparently differs from the conclusion to the novel – brings relief with Maisie, for the first time ever, afforded an opportunity to make the important decisions about her own life and those with whom she wants to share it.