What Maisie Knew

Onata Aprile lights up Scott McGehee and David Siegel's adaptation of Henry James' divorce novel

In 1897, author Henry James explored the themes of familial dysfunction in What Maisie Knew, a tale focused on the experiences of a young girl caught up the marital breakdown of her well-to-do parents.

It was a significant literary study of divorce, and the impact that it can have on youngsters, at a time when the topic remained relatively taboo. It is testament to both James’s ability as a storyteller and the universality of the subject matter that the story should translate so seamlessly from Victorian London to present day New York, and onto the silver screen.

Directed with no small amount of skill – and a refreshingly straightforward style – by writing-directing duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel, this version of What Maisie Knew is undoubtedly one of the finest films you are likely to see this year, featuring glossy cinematography, gorgeous backdrops and an incredible central performance.

It might sound like a cold and grown up story of a tortured and confused child, yet it is nothing of the sort. There is a heart and soul here that many similar projects will strive, and fail, to capture, and so much of the triumph of this film rests with Maisie herself.

To describe eight-year-old Onata Aprile as a prodigy would certainly be accurate, but to do so would also suggest a certain precociousness, where talent – especially in one so young – might be prone to exhibit itself at the expense of the story. Aprile’s performance is, however, extremely accomplished and understated.

There is no hint of overacting. Nor is she another cute, but bland, ingenue dutifully remembering the lines she has been coached to speak. Instead, hers is perhaps the most natural child performance of the past decade. Aprile is unselfconscious, free of a sense that this is all pretend. She is simply a little girl existing an increasingly fractured environment.

Around such a remarkable presence the film takes shape, often in unexpected ways. Without really trying, or even being aware of it, Maisie spreads quiet joy to the people around her.

While the travails of adulthood appear to harry those above a certain height, they are all consistent in their desire to share in her glow. Her parents, Susanna and Beale, played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan respectively, may loathe each other, but the love for their daughter is unquestioned.

Unfortunately for Maisie, once the family unit is broken, life intrudes to shunt her aside. Beale is a feckless art dealer, superficially charming but wavering in his commitment to the consuming demands of parenthood. Susanna is torn between caring for a child she loves and the very real threat of becoming a faded rock star.

As her parents’ lives increasingly consume them, their child is left out in the cold. What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is the way in which Maisie reacts to this upheaval. She never once judges nor mourns her lot. Her innocence allows her to love, unconditionally, anyone who shows her genuine kindness and affection. Indeed, she sheds but a single tear.

It is in this kindness, then, that the film’s core dynamic emerges to surely charm even the most cynical among us. The connection between Maisie and her sensitive Scottish nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) is in place before the story begins, but it develops, for various reasons, into one of genuine and mutual devotion.

Margo herself is somewhat adrift, in spite of the apparently favourable direction her own life has taken. She draws considerable strength from the fact that, ultimately, she is one of the few people that this little girl can rely upon.

Maisie’s second pillar emerges, surprisingly, in the form of Alexander Skarsgård’s Lincoln. Abruptly introduced as her new stepfather he is, superficially at least, every inch the handsome but errant and underachieving bartender, meandering through life and falling into a relationship with a single mother.

When these assumptions are cast aside though, a truly touching understanding is born. Lincoln is attentive to Maisie, patient and caring. He treats her like a person rather than a burden, in spite of her age and the fact that his good nature is exploited more than once. Susanna even dares to react with petulant jealousy as a deep bond forms between her new husband and daughter.

Given their places within the shifting patterns of Maisie’s life, Margo and Lincoln are two characters who might otherwise be entirely unsympathetic – cruel reminders of her parents’ priorities. On the contrary, Maisie gives them purpose and a mutual sense of belonging. In their presence Maisie earns the kind of uncomplicated family support she deserves. ‘You like Lincoln, don’t you?’ asks Margo at one point. Maisie’s reply is simple and telling: ‘I love him.’

What Maisie Knew runs at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast until September 5.