A modern day adaptation of the 1897 Henry James novel of the same name, What Maisie Knew follows the story of a young girl caught up in the middle of her parents’ fight for sole custody and is undeniably hard to watch at times. With an assortment of “one-ups” against each other, Maisie (Onata Aprile) finds herself thrown into a vicious battle between her parents Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), where there can only be one winner. Although fighting tooth and nail for sole custody neither parent seems all that keen on spending time with Maisie, leaving her upbringing to their trophy spouses nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and Lincoln, a kind hearted and sweet natured bartender (Alexander Skarsgård).
Considering that this film has the potential to be an excessive tear-jerker, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel instead tell the story through a series of quick and sharp scenes, all seen from the point-of-view of the young girl, as it is written in James’ novel. Without any indulgence in grandstanding confrontations or anguished speeches, the directors manage to create a film that has both a light-hearted quality as well as a white-hot fury thanks to the outstanding acting contributions of the cast. What Maisie’s parents do not seem to realise is that although they are both convinced they love her, the moment they pawn her off to the other parent or choose work over spending time with her, their love means nothing. In one particularly upsetting yet incredibly well-written and directed scene, we see Susanna leave Maisie in the middle of the night at Lincoln’s bar, only he is not working. After the employees at the bar tirelessly try to contact someone to take Maisie, they are not able to and a young barmaid offers to take care of her for the night. Maisie waking up in an unknown room surrounded by unknown people and asking to go home is just one of many heart-breaking moments in the film.
From the outset, Siegel and McGehee manage to create an on-going theme of abandonment. Early in the film we see Maisie in the foreground, playing with her toys or colouring while her parents are heard shouting and arguing with each other in the background, although it might as well be the sound of traffic outside for all that the young girl reacts to it. We hardly see the young girl respond to the conflict that surrounds her and there are a multitude of times in which Maisie is used by each parent to get back at the other. At a deposition, Susanna tries to convince Maisie that her father threw her across the room, “You don't remember that? He just threw you across the room. Make sure you tell them that.” These moments, scattered across the film, send a clear message that this child needs rescuing and you find yourself wishing Maisie out of her situation.
Although there are an assortment of twists and turns, mainly in the final third of the film, and although the Henry James ending is bleaker, it is a credit to the directors and the screenplay that the ending does not betray its own story in the final moments. What Maisie Knew is a warning to all those parents in the middle of a divorce that their children are to be cherished and looked after, not scorned and used as pawns. Bad parenting has rarely been portrayed with such delicacy, beautiful directing and incredible power.