What Maisie Knew, a contemporary retelling of the 1897 Henry James novel of the same name set in contemporary New York City, is the heart-wrenching tale of love gone slowly, then explosively wrong and the sad-eyed but emotionally-agile child caught in its messy wake.
It is told from the perspective of the titular Maisie, played to nuanced perfection by talented child actor Onata Aprile who seems to regard each and every unwelcome development with the quiet stoicism borne of a lifetime of emotional upheaval.
While a sole tear down her cheek later in the film belies just how well this almost wordless witness to the decline of her parents’ relationship is really coping, Maisie suffers for the most part through her parents’ benign, though oddly loving, neglect with acceptance, having little choice of course but to process what is happening to her in the best possible terms and thus find a way to cope with it.
One stark example of her by now well-developed coping mechanisms – you don’t survive long with a rock-‘n’-roll mum (Julianne Moore as Susanna) who prefers drug and alcohol-fueled late nights to actual parenting, or an almost-always-absent globetrotting art dealer father (Steve Coogan as Beale) without some of the best in the business – is provided by the seemingly innocent delivery of a big bunch of colourful flowers to her father’s new abode.
Staying there for the first time as part of a court-ordered custody arrangement, Maisie watches quietly as the flowers arrive, a hopelessly manipulative gift to her from her mother designed to divert attention back onto the self-involved Susanna even while she is miles away, and are promptly placed in the garbage bin by an enraged, thinking-only-of-himself Beale.
Entranced by their volume and colour as any little girl would be, she rescues the lavish bunch of flowers from the bin and hides them in her closet, rationalising that her father threw them away, not because he hates her mother, but because he is “allergic to flowers”.
She explains all this to Margot (Joanna Vanderham), her one time nanny and now stepmother, who was proposed to her by her father in an escalating tit-for-tat battle with her mother that sees Susanna also remarry quickly to Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a kind hearted bartender she barely knows, whose heart quietly breaks for the little girl who is desperately trying to refashion a confusing world of ever-changing emotional realities into something concrete and understandable.
It is task made all the more challenging by parents who though they love her in their own bizarrely self-involved ways but who, for reasons unexplained (save for a brief moment towards the film’s end when Susanna whispers to a now intransigent Maisie that “I was like you once”, giving us a picture of the person Maisie could become without a proper, nurturing environment) are unable to act on this love in any way that beneficially affects Maisie.
That sort of meaningful parenting falls to Margot and Lincoln, who are drawn into Beale and Susanna’s twisted, callous emotional entanglements before being summarily spat out as their usefulness to Maisie’s parents disappears.
Through all the emotional turmoil meted on them by Beale and Susanna, who both depart physically – Susanna on tour, Beale permanently back to the UK – as well as emotionally from Maisie’s life, and their own growing romantic relationship, both Margot and Lincoln are the only constants in the increasingly fractured worlds that Maisie must navigate with ever diminishing success.
The marked contrast between the faux-parenting of Beale and Susanna (who treat Maisie like a miniature adult, inappropriately pouring out their troubles to her), and the actual parenting given to Maisie by Lincoln and Margot who form a real and enduring bond with their unexpected charge, is evidenced most beautifully in the scenes that bookend the film.
At the start we saw Susanna carrying a giggling, happy Maisie to bed whose refusal to go sleep straight away is met with both acapella and then guitar-backed renditions of “Rock-a-bye Baby” till Maisie falls quickly but assuredly into dreamland.
We soon discover that this is an anomaly, a rare perfect moment of mothering from a mother who, though she loves her child, sees parenting as an inconvenience that takes her away from the rock-‘n’-roll lifestyle to which she is addicted (largely because it is the only thing bolstering her wafer-thin, insecure ego), almost to the exclusion of everything else.
Contrast this with the film’s end which sees a deliriously happy Maisie running down a wooden long pier to go on a much-looked forward ride on a fishing boat, Margot and Lincoln walking hand in hand contentedly behind her, the three of them looking for all the world like the perfect family.
And to all intents and purposes they are, providing Maisie with a stability so precious that she knocks back another of her mother’s impetuous invitations to take her now-exhausted and suspicious daughter on the road with her.
What Maisie Knew is one of those rare films that is so perfectly emotionally balanced and nuanced, and so beautifully acted by everyone involved including the gifted Onata Aprile, that you are drawn into its skillyfully-wrought world so completely that all that matters is the welfare of the stoically resolute but emotionally-fragile young girl in front you.
That she is all right in the end is largely a matter of love, luck and circumstance, her tale a timely reminder that you can never take your attention of the people that matter most in life to you lest they fall through the cracks, leaving you, and most importantly, them without the chance to have what everyone craves most – a life well-lived, and in the case of vulnerable young souls like Maisie, well-loved.