It is rare to find a movie that packs such an emotional punch while maintaining its subtlety, integrity, and supported by gritty, superb performances that, amazingly, never resort to cliche or melodrama. What Maisie Knew, a retelling of Henry James’ novel, is just that kind of rare masterpiece, which makes it one of the best movies of the year.
The plot is familiar to, or at least resonates with, everyone — whether it’s people who have come from broken homes, people who have lived with manipulative, selfish people, or parents dealing with guilt for whatever reason when raising their children. The directing choices helped to harness the emotional weight, while not heavy-handedly telling its viewers exactly what to feel or who to side with. It was a pleasure to be able to experience this type of film, with all of its emotional implications, without the saccharine, over-the-top viewing experience that often accompanies these types of films, instead smartly allowing its viewers to truly feel the realness of the story.
Instead, the directors allow the entire story to rest on the shoulders of their cast — luckily, every single cast member gives an awards-worthy performance. What Maisie Knew truly becomes their movie and is a standing testament to the impact of great, out-of-the-box casting.
At the centre is the very, very impressive Onata Aprile, as the titular character. At only 7 years old, Aprile is made to anchor all of the scenes, often without dialogue. To say that she was a brilliant revelation would be an understatement to the depth and talent that she exuded in the film. Her ability to act so well both in tandem with her co-stars and alone further highlights her emotional maturity and high acting instinct and intellect.
The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Julianne Moore puts on a great performance as the faded rock star mother with plenty of emotional baggage. She ably portrays this highly unlikeable character with enough layers to make you feel both disgust and empathy with her, regardless of how incomprehensibly awful her behaviour may be. Steve Coogan ably plays his part as her foil, Maisie’s charming but ultimately emotionally unavailable father. There is a sense with both of them that, while their parenting skills are severely lacking, and while they make terrible decisions that impact their young daughter, they do still love her in their own way. This brings up one of the greatest complexities delved into in the film and is explored thanks to their great performances.
Maybe even more revelatory than Maisie’s parents are the performances by Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham as their new partners and, ultimately, Maisie’s allies and advocates. Their connection to the little girl, the tackling of their emotional dilemmas, and ultimately their ability to inject light into the film while remaining undeniably realistic and non-cheesy.
What Maisie Knew is brilliant all-around, from its gut-wrenching realism, awards-worthy performances, and its consistent and well-thought out plot. While its premise could have easily become heavy-handed, you find a film that is so painstakingly crafted by the writer, directors and actors that it is instead, to its great success, a subtle masterpiece that should be this generation’s go-to film about the complexities of family love and bonds.