4 stars
There are directors who steer clear of working with children in a lead role, perhaps because of W.C. Fields’ oft repeated comment about kids and dogs, but Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s film, What Maisie Knew (based on the 19th century novella by Henry James), successfully manages to bring forth a 6-year-old leading character in Maisie, played by the luminous Onata Aprile. Aprile, who already has a reasonably significant career under her belt, successfully manages to steal the limelight here. She is on-screen almost the entire time, delivering a top-notch performance which should garner her an Oscar nomination.

Her wretched parents, an ageing rocker, Susanna (Julianne Moore – A Single Man / The Kids Are All Right) and a struggling art dealer, Beale (Steve Coogan – The Look Of Love / The Trip), are in the midst of an acrimonious split and are not above using their daughter as a pawn in their war game. As they battle on, Maisie quietly observes and listens to their histrionics with an air of resignation. When the pair finally divorce and quickly re-marry, their tug-of-war starts to accelerate. Beale sets up home with Maisie’s au-pair Margo (Joanna Vanderham – who was the lead role in the terrific TV series The Paradise) and Susanna, in an attempt not to be outdone - and to find a nanny replacement, ends up with drop-dead gorgeous barman Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard – Melancholia / Battleship). Maisie is now caught between not only her parents’ drama, but another, which involves their partners. It is a fine mess and to watch what Maisie has to go through is heart wrenching and gob-smacking at times.

Coogan gives a terrific performance as possibly one of the worst on-screen fathers of recent times, matched equally by Moore’s ranting, selfish rat-bag Susanna, a totally insensitive narcissist. It is quite overwhelming at times to see this kid being so manipulated by her dysfunctional parents and one wonders how the filmmakers coached young Aprile through some of these scenes. Vanderham and Skarsgard as Margo and Lincoln, also give sensitive performances as the only people from whom Maisie receives any real love and understanding. But the standout performance is Aprile’s.

Beginning in contemporary Manhattan and ending up in a lovely home on the coast, cinematographer Giles Nuttgens makes the most of some very attractive locations. The costume design by Stacey Battat also goes into over-drive, decking Susanna out in some real ‘cougar’ ensembles, but it is the extensive, quirky wardrobe worn by Maisie that stands out. If you are up for a custody battle with a real edge, portrayed by a stellar cast, then you won’t want to miss What Maisie Knew, one of the best films of the year so far.


Previewed at Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney on 13 August 2013



Juilianne Moore
Steve Coogan
Alexander Skarsgard
Joanna Vanderham

Scott McGehee
David Siegel

Nancy Doyne
Carroll Cartwright



93 minutes

August 22, 2013
What Maisie Knew (2012) on IMDb
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