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Starring Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard and Steve Coogan, What Maisie Knew examines a messy custody battle from the perspective of a six year old in a modern take on a Henry James’ 1897 novel of the same name.
As her self-centred parents fight each other for custody, Maisie (Onata Aprile) is passed from parent to parent and partner to partner in an endless stream of phonecalls, appointments and taxis. Her father (Steve Coogan) moves in with the nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), while Maisie’s mother (Julianne Moore) marries a young, laidback bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) in an attempt at one-upmanship. Though Maisie’s parents fight viciously over her, they forget her at school or at each other’s homes and when they do spend the time with their daughter they don’t know what to do with her.
Maisie is a self-contained child who is able to negotiate modern day Manhattan; we see her paying the pizza delivery man when her parents are too occupied with arguing to do it – and she doesn’t forget a tip. She watches everything with the look of knowing and not knowing, she’s a child confused, upset and sometimes bored by the adults around her and the camera, rightly, remains focused on her as the adults argue around her. Sometimes Maisie expresses a truth the adults can’t and sometimes, heartbreakingly, she makes excuses for them.
Julianne Moore is fantastic as Maisie’s brittle, angry musician mother who sits around at parties watching videos of herself and talks to her daughter as though they are both teenagers. She’s possessive, needy and jealous, even of her daughter’s affections and is so terrified of the connection that develops between her new partner and her daughter that she rails against it as nothing more than a plot. Maisie’s father, Beale (Steve Coogan), is distant, tells jokes she doesn’t understand and disappears overseas into his work. Both of them are too busy and too self-centred to put Maisie first.
It is the partners, rather than the parents, who are able to connect with Maisie. Lincoln (Skarsgard), handsome and good with kids, ticks a few too many boxes to be believable. Having said that, Skarsgard has brilliant chemistry with Aprile and is able to portray their growing relationship with ease, particularly in a montage in which the pair treat the city like their own personal playground. Music is held back for these moments, with great effect, creating a stark contrast with the isolating time she spends with her parents. In another touching scene, Maisie is given a seedling to nurture at school and it is the green shoots of something tender and real that we hope will win out.
With brilliant performances from Julianne Moore and newcomer Onata Aprile, this touching portrayal of a marriage breakdown is at times an uncomfortable watch as it focuses its attentions on the child stuck in the middle.
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