What Maisie Knew – Review ★★★★

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A modern-day, New York-set update on the Henry James novel. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan impress hugely as Susanna and Beale, a loathsome self-obsessed married couple, with a lovely, bewildered little six-year-old daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile).

Divorced and soon living with new partners, they sue for custody of the child, and Coogan wins. But though they both pretend otherwise, they’re not at all truly interested in the child, except as a trophy adornment to their lives when they’re not too busy. She is an ageing rock band singer taking her regularly away on the road, he is a Brit with lots of art-dealing business taking him regularly away to Europe.

Luckily, the parents choose well with their new partners and marry them. Both exceptionally nice, caring human beings, barman Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), Susanna’s new husband, and Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the family’s former nanny who’s become Beale’s new wife, gradually become surrogate parents to the child as they too inevitably fall out with the appalling Susanna and Beale.

The other duo take turns at caring for the little girl, as she becomes attached to them and the real parents withdraw more and more into living their selfish lives. Thus, after a lot of grief and anguish, the child is finally given the chance to pick her own family, the best you can have.

Smoothly directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Suture), this is a deliciously darkly humorous, heart-rendingly poignant family tug-of-love drama, centring firmly on the plight of the child, as the title implies. Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright’s screenplay is a polished little gem of writing with lovely, credible dialogue, plenty of emotional highspot scenes and a clear narrative line.

It’s a compliment to the movie that it really is hard to watch sometimes, as the parents are so lacking in real care or love, making the film a chilly, quite upsetting experience, for all the love the girl finally finds. The ambiguously kind of happy ending is also one of great sorrow and regret. Subtle that.

All five performers are spot on, with Moore showing just how chilling she can be in an emotionally frigid role. It’s good to enjoy Coogan away from comedy honing his acting skills. Skarsgard mounts an effortless charm attack in the embodiment of a warm and sensitive new man. The sympathetic Vanderham is cute and appealing and Aprile gives a moving, quite grown-up performance without ever trying to be too winsome.

Derek Winnert is a leading UK film critic and author working for Vue Cinemas, Shortlist, Onemetal, ILoveMediaCity, cubed3, Letterboxd, Universal Film Magazine, UK Film Review, jonesyinc, The Void, Celebritext and the Film Review annual. He’s also worked for TV Times, What’s On TV, TV & Satellite Week, The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Mail. A member of the London Critics Circle, he is the author of The Virgin Encyclopedia of the Movies, The Film & Video Guide and a biography of Barbra Streisand.