Pint-sized Maisie (Onata Aprile) has a skewed view of adult life, with slammed doors and whispered rows as much a part of her world as playmates and puzzles. Her parents are Beale (Steve Coogan), a globe-trotting, supercilious art dealer and Susanna (Julianne Moore), a rock star who fails to notice how heavily she is flirting with cliche as a rock star with panda eyes, messy hair and ever-present cigarettes. Their marriage has dissolved into open hostility as Susanna locks Beale out of their luxurious Manhattan apartment. They next meet at divorce court, where both seek full custody of Maisie.
The court instead orders joint custody in allotments of ten days for each parent, starting a heart-sinking cycle where both parents fail to keep up with their responsibility to pass the child onto the other, meaning the wide-eyed Maisie is left at school, in a bar, in the lobby of the apartments. Beale quickly ups the stakes, marrying Maisie’s somewhat timid but well-meaning nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and setting up house with her.
Fuelled by spite, Susanna retaliates with a marriage of convenience of her own, quickly wedding Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a naive bartender who soon develops a bond with Maisie. Both parents continue to throw emotional barbs at each other through their daughter, but as they both start spending more time out of the city for work, Maisie ends up increasingly left in the care of either Margo or Lincoln, or sometimes both.
Told entirely from the point of view of the neglected Maisie, this is a fragmented story made up of overheard snippets of conversation, claim and counterclaim. Completely convincing and beautifully nuanced, it becomes an involving affair, all the more effective for taking an unconventional route to your heartstrings and generally eschewing the kind of histrionics or easy sentimentality that could have come with this territory.
Based on Henry James’ 1897 novel of the same name, the story has been seamlessly moved from the 19th century to the present and from London to New York, suggesting there is something essentially timeless at the heart of this story.
Despite the presence of a quartet of first rate actors who nail all the details of their respective roles, the narrative’s exclusive focus on the child’s perspective of events means What Maisie Knew has to live or die on the performance of Aprile, who was aged just six at the time of filming. Thankfully her performance never hits a false note. Acting as the tale’s unlikely moral centre, she is remarkable as a child who maintains her essential goodness in the face of deplorable neglect and selfishness.