Film review | What Maisie Knew – Tiny Onata Aprile shines in tale of child caught in parents’ bitter divorce

What Maisie Knew - Julianne Moore, Onata Aprile

Henry James’s classic 19th-century novel What Maisie Knew gets updated to present-day New York in this true, touching, superbly acted drama.

James’s tale shows the aftermath of a bitter divorce through the eyes of the daughter of a heedless upper-class couple, and here the parents are Julianne Moore’s veteran rock star Susanna and Steve Coogan’s slick art dealer Beale, both of them equally selfish and irresponsible, and both equally without a clue when it comes to raising their child.

As six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) shuttles haphazardly between the warring exes, it is the couple’s much younger new spouses, bartender Lincoln (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård) and nanny Margo (Scottish actress Joanna Vanderham), who prove to be the loving, playful and emotionally generous grown-ups she needs.

What Maisie Knew - Onata Aprile, Alexander Skarsgard

Working from Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne’s astute adaptation of James’s original, directors Scott McGhee and David Siegel make an impressive stab at reproducing on screen the author’s literary feat of giving an innocent child’s view of adult entanglements.

From our perspective, some of the scenes that unfold are tinged with dark comedy; some are heartrending; and some fuse the two, as when Maisie comforts a tearful friend during a sleepover in Susanna’s huge Manhattan townhouse, while the delinquent grown-ups indulge themselves downstairs.

As it goes on, the film does slightly soften and sweeten James’s original, which covers a far longer time span, but the acting throughout is first rate. Moore and Coogan totally nail their characters’ self-absorption, while Skarsgård and Vanderham convey the younger pair’s innate goodness. Best of all, though, is Aprile, and it’s her remarkable performance as the precocious, vulnerable, soulful Maisie that holds the film together.

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Released in cinemas from Friday 23rd August.

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