What Maisie Knew is a film adaptation of a Henry James novel updated to a contemporary setting. Neither mothers nor fathers, however, are at all idealized.
A Very Brief Summary of What Maisie Knew
From the eyes of a six-year-old girl, Maisie’s parents’ relationship disintegrates. They remarry, they inappropriately place her in the middle of their issues, they leave most of the subsequent caretaking to their new spouses.
Linda Holmes, NPR: “There’s no mugging and no sobbing; she is heartbreaking because she is transparently processing the fact that while her parents are willing to fight over her, they will not in fact choose her, over either their other interests or their conflict.”
Justin Chang, Variety: “Scribes Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne approximate the intimate child’s perspective James achieved on the page by placing Maisie (Aprile) in every scene, continually reminding the viewer of the invisible trauma being inflicted by two thoughtless individuals on the person most deserving of their care and attention.”
There’s Therapy in Maisie’s Future
Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: “She might as well be invisible, but she hears everything. And here’s the only good news: Onata Aprile, the young actress who plays the adorable moppet trapped in this bitter custody tug-of-war, is heartbreakingly good. All you have to do is take one look into her wide, sad eyes to know she’s internalizing all the vicious white noise. You also suspect that she’s going to spend most of her teenage years in marathon therapy sessions.”
The Parents of What Maisie Knew
Justin Chang, Variety: “…(H)er parents, fiery-tempered rock musician Susanna (Julianne Moore) and perpetually distracted art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan), have divorced, leaving their soft-spoken, well-behaved daughter to drift between their respective Manhattan apartments. Each parent wants custody for all the wrong reasons, as it soon becomes infuriatingly clear that, despite their superficial expressions of affection, they’re more interested in using Maisie as a weapon against each other than in serving her best interests.”
Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “Steve Coogan, in his few scenes, is terrifying. It’s a great portrayal of unfettered narcissism. He has one moment, in the back of a cab, saying goodbye to Maisie, that is as good as anything he has ever done. For just a moment, you see him understand, and actually feel, his own terrible nature.”
Justin Chang, Variety: “It’s Susanna, trying to convince Maisie and herself that she’s a good mother, who arguably winds up doing the greater damage, and Moore acts with a white-hot fury that sends waves of resentment and self-pity flying in all directions.”
The New Spouses
Rex Reed, New York Observer:
…Susanna’s new husband is a sweet, sensitive bartender named Lincoln (versatile, appealing Alexander Skarsgård) who shows Maisie the kind of sincere compassion she never had from her own dad, and Beale runs away with the nanny, a kind-hearted girl named Margo (Joanna Vanderham) whose maternal instincts seem genuine instead of the phony play-acting Maisie gets from her real mother. At first, these replacements fill tertiary positions, but eventually they do something Maisie has never experienced—they become real friends. One of the things Maisie learns is that loneliness is not restricted to only one age, gender or legal document. Both Lincoln and Margo are neglected and unloved. Maisie has always been the one left out of the equation, the lockbox where the grownups deposit their fears, tears and anxieties. Surprisingly, it is now up to a child to make the adults feel wanted. Unwillingly, they eventually become playmates, guardians and surrogate parents to the little girl who needs them, and the two most unconditionally devoted people Maisie knows are the two people who have landed in her life by accident.