We follow the impending divorce between ageing rockstar Susanna (Julianne Moore) and British arts dealer Beale (Coogan), from the perspective of their inadvertent seven year old daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile). As tensions mount and the settlement goes through, Maisie is then torn between two households, drifting freely between the two, where she strikes up unlikely bonds with her parents respective new spouses, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham), as all three become victims to this rather unsavoury separation.
It’s fascinating to see this annulment from a child’s point of view, bringing an innocence and naivety to the situation, really highlighting the immature actions of both Susanna and Beale. By peering into this situation from Maisie’s perspective, we understand the situation as much as she does, we only pick up the occasional argument, or vitriolic cursing match. We don’t have any context as such, but we get a gist for what is going on, even if we only ever see what Maisie sees, never going beyond her apprehension. Such a technique ensures the viewer doesn’t take sides, and instead views each parent with an equal amount of disdain.
Maisie is being used as a prop, merely an accessory for the selfish pair to just get at the other, as this insouciant loss of innocence provides the picture with a cold and callous ambience. However it’s one that has been richly enhanced by a sense of realism, as this film depicts a somewhat common, if perturbing scenario. However as the story progresses the atmosphere changes, as both Margo and Lincoln get unwittingly drawn in to this debacle, also becoming alienated by their partners. As the emphasis shifts from the parents to their spouses, the film gets warmer, almost shadowing Maisie’s own disposition as we reach the latter stages.
As we intertwine effectively between the intense arguments, and Maisie doing childish things, such as making toy models at school or playing with her dolls, it highlights the stark contrast between the two corresponding livelihoods, and it’s a sincerity portrayed miraculously by Aprile. However much credit must go the screenwriters Nancy Doyle and Carroll Cartwright for capturing that purity on screen, as Maisie’s dialogue never once feels contrived or unnatural, and on occasion seems as though there isn’t even a script.
While also sharing a natural and heartwarming chemistry with Skarsgård, there is a touching and amiable feeling to What Maisie Knew, as a film that deals with severe, universal themes with a delicate craft. That said, it does become somewhat hackneyed and predictable at points, and you can’t deny the unbearable tweeness of certain scenes, as, regrettably, for all of its innovation, it does fall into needless conventionality on occasion.