Philip Larkin boiled down libraries’ worth of psychology books and hundreds of years of literature into one, single, tweet-sized nugget: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’ In ‘What Maisie Knew’, seven-year-old Maisie’s parents are doing their best to live up to that line by selfishly using their daughter as a weapon in their divorce.
Usually a film about an adorable seven-year-old with a wobbly lower lip at the centre of a custody battle would have me reaching for a kitten to kick. But ‘What Maisie Knew’ is neither depressing nor touchy-feely. This tense New York drama from the co-directors of ‘Bee Season’ and ‘The Deep End’ is sensitive and almost unwatchably perceptive about dysfunctional families – and it’s acted with knife-sharp precision.
It’s a contemporary adaptation of a novel written 115 years ago by Henry James – after a friend told him about the case of a divorcing couple granted joint custody of their child. Scandalous in 1897; bit more common in 2013. In the film, Maisie is shuttled between parents every ten days. Steve Coogan’s gift for playing a smug asshole comes into its own as her dad, Beale, a manipulative, up-himself English art dealer glued to his BlackBerry. Julianne Moore is fierce as Maisie’s fading rock star mum, Susanna (hair dyed black, like Alison Mosshart from The Kills). She’s not a monster, just horribly selfish.
Giving Coogan and Moore a run for their money in the acting stakes is Onata Aprile as Maisie, just six when she made the film. She doesn’t do cute-kid acting. She just seems to be Maisie – and the directors keep the camera at her level. We see what she sees, hear what she hears. (‘You’re a fucking headcase.’ ‘Fuck you!’)
Beale and Susanna fight in court for sole custody of their daughter. Later, they realise they can inflict more damage by dumping Maisie on each other and disappearing for weeks. Beale marries Maisie’s nanny. Susanna hooks up with a scorching-hot slacker barman, played by Alexander Skarsgård. An army of lady-fans will swoon at his stepdad-in-shining-armour routine. A touching, heartbreaking film.