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Byron Shire
February 27, 2021

What Maisie Knew

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You get a lot of American films in which the kids are either nauseating smarties or brattish beauties (beats me why they like them like that), but thankfully Onata Aprile’s Maisie is the antithesis of those types.

Her naturalness is beguiling and, without trying, she is able to invest in the character a truthfulness that is all too rare in juvenile portrayals.

It helps, too, that she is surrounded by such a talented cast, each of whom enlivens their role with immediately recognisable traits – we know these people and we are affected by their behaviour.

Set in present-day New York but based on the late nineteenth century novel by Henry James, the story is entirely focused on the impact made on Maisie by the separation of her parents, Susanna (Julianne Moore), a ragged-edged, ageing rock singer, and her de facto husband, Beale (Steve Coogan), a sleazy English art dealer whose career has hit a flat spot.

Both love Maisie, but not quite so much that they can put her before their own self-centred preoccupations. Beale is hastily married to Maisie’s adored nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), and Susanna, as a means of gaining better access to her daughter, gets hitched to the younger Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender with no prospects but of a caring nature that, to Susanna’s irritation, wins the little girl’s heart.

A classic tug of war over custody ensues as Maisie is shunted uncomprehendingly between apartments – at one point she is left uncollected at the nightspot where Lincoln works and is taken home by a waitress. With confrontation and spiteful rows likely to erupt at any time, Maisie’s welfare is of secondary consideration.

The potential for bleakness might discourage a prospective viewer, but directors Scott McGehee and David Sieghel manage a perfect mix of sweet and sour, primarily through the unmannered performance of Aprile, whose constant, passive presence has you locked in her buffeted world.

This is a gem of a movie, full of tenderness, compassion and, in the end, forgiveness.

~ John Campbell 

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