Film Review: What Maisie Knew

By Elizabeth Lee ‘16
Film Columnist

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

A contemporary remake of the 1897 Henry James novel, What Maisie Knew (2013), tells the story of a six-year-old girl caught between two self-absorbed parents battling for custody during the aftermath of a tempestuous divorce. Set in contemporary New York, Maisie’s mother Sussana (Julianne Moore) is a flighty and emotionally volatile rock musician, and her father Beale (Steve Coogan) is a distant and work-focused British businessman.  Maisie is taken care of predominantly by her sweet, loving and young nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who eventually marries Beale, until one day, hours late, a young man comes to pick Maisie up from school, claiming to be her step father. Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), who Sussana marries in an attempt to appear to be a more reliable guardian, is a young, quiet bartender who falls in love with Maisie.

Maisie’s parents continuously prove themselves to be irresponsible as Sussana takes off for a music tour and Beale moves suddenly back to England permanently, neither aware of how or where their daughter is. As Maisie is passed back in forth between her unreliable mother and father, it falls to Margo and Lincoln to care for Maisie.  Eventually, splitting from each of their spouses, the two begin to form their own family of three with Maisie as their relationship strengthens on the basis of their mutual commitment and ability to love and provide for the little girl who essentially becomes their own daughter.

All the while, six-year-old Maisie, played by the equally young and poised Onata Aprile, stands in the middle of it all with grace and a quiet, knowing look. She becomes an object in everyone else’s turbulent lives — the obsession of each of her parents to beat the other, the compassion and closeness her caretakers lack in their own relationships. Maisie says very little but constantly observes, maintaining a calm but nonetheless powerful presence of her own that does not command the viewer’s attention but draws you into what she seems to know. Very rarely do her parents engage in conversation with her, generally talking about or at her, relieving grievances or taking out frustrations on the other. Even for Margo and Lincoln, Maisie becomes the means by which they find intimacy in each other.  And Maisie sees it. Though just a child, every adult around her seems in some way reliant on her, her calm and quiet way of loving each of them seeming to indicate that there must be something she understands better than they.

In the end, it is Maisie who comforts Margo when Beale locks her out of her own home and frequently abandons her. It is Maisie who holds Lincoln’s hand and brings him a chocolate cake at work when he has no one else. It is Maisie who sends her father off to England with the fond recollection of a story he once told her about finding coins on the streets, and her mother off on the remainder of her tour with a hug. Without having to explain, she convinces her parents that their actually loving her would mean parting ways and letting her be taken care of by those who better can. Without she helps Lincoln and Margo find the strength and reliability of kindness. Though it’s so easy for us to forget, Maisie knows what it really means to love someone.