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Sunday 8 September 2013

What Maisie Knew, Film directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 8* out of 10

Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the precocious 9-year-old daughter of art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) and ageing rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore), who have hired the young Margo (Joanna Vanderham) as her nanny, with whom Maisie has developed a strong bond. What is a very dysfunctional home at the best of times, becomes a truly toxic environment as Beale and Susanna go through a nasty break-up. Margo is involved with Beale, while Susanna soon takes up with the young bar-keeper Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgaard).

The adults around Maisie are so wrapped up in their own affairs and desires that they appear to either ignore her altogether or use her in order to further their own ends. Maisie soon understands that in order to get through this, she will have to look after her own needs and take a lead in managing her relationship with the rather irresponsible adults around her. In the stormy waters which they have created, she looks for a suitable place to throw an anchor, in a desperate attempt to find at least some stability for herself.

Despite being a adaptation of the eponymous novel written in the 1890s by the American author Henry James, "What Maisie Knew" is a heart-breaking story of our time: self-obsessed adults misuse their position as parents to pursue their own ends, leaving their child to fend for herself. 

With the help of an excellent ensemble of actors, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel tell Maisie’s story in convincing “scenes from a marriage” style. Juliann Moore stands out as a woman with guilt feelings for being an inadequate parent which she is asking the victim of her inadequate parenting to assuage.  But, the success of this film depends on how credible the portrayal of Maisie is - and Onata Aprile delivers an outstanding performance.

After seeing the What Maisie Knew, I did ask myself whether it was really possible for a young girl to be as mature in dealing with the consequences of chaotic adult relationships as Maisie is. Quite by accident I came across the 1998 documentary film Divorce Iranian Style by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini. Halfway through this documentary a young girl, the daughter of the clerk in an Iranian divorce court, who has spent her childhood observing its procedures, speaks on camera to the filmmakers about her observations on failing adult relationships. It is an amazing document, which has settled the question for me – children like Maisie can speak to us in fictional and factual form across time and cultural barriers. Here a link to this documentary film on YouTube:

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