Movie Review: What Maisie Knew

Movie Review: What Maisie Knew

When kids are the deep thinkers

By Mark HadleyWednesday 21 Aug 2013MoviesReading Time: 3 minutes

A stark reminder of the safety of children, and importance of our words.


What Maisie Knew opens with its tragedy front and centre. In an easily overlooked opening vignette we see seven-year-old Maisie entering her parent’s room because she finds it hard to sleep. Her mother offers to sing her a lullaby. Tucked in, Maisie listens to the strangely disturbing lyrics of Rock-a-bye Baby:

“… When the bow breaks, 

The baby will fall

And down will come baby

Cradle and all.”

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– and in the opening minutes we’re poignantly reminded that a child’s security always hangs in the balance, dependent on strength from above. When Maisie’s parents begin to tear each other apart in the following scenes, it’s no wonder we see their daughter’s go into free-fall.

What Maisie Knew is a sadly relevant film based on the classic Henry James novel about a young girl caught up in the disintegration of a marriage. Julianne Moore plays Maisie’s mother Susanna, a self-absorbed rock star worried by the advance of middle age. British comedian Steve Coogan steps out of his comfort zone to play her husband Beale, a heavy-drinking high-end art dealer. But screen newcomer Onata Aprile will hold every eye as the captivatingly innocent Maisie. Susanna and Beale’s marriage disintegrates and the courts awards equal custody, resulting in Maisie shuttling back and forward between her two homes. The only constant between the old life and the new is her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), whom her father marries. Attempting to prove she is just as ‘stable’ Maisie’s mother marries bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). What follows is a spiteful battle in which Maisie is both the weapon and the prize, demonstrating not only that Susanna and Beale are hopeless parents, but Margo and Lincoln are the ones Maisie actually needs.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have done an excellent job capturing the typically childish world of blind faith and imagined excuses. Maisie’s mother sends her flowers, which Beale drops in the bin. When Margo discovers them wilting in the closet and suggests putting them in water, Maisie struggles to hold on to both sides of her broken world:

Maisie: “Can’t we just keep them in the closet?”

Margo: “Why?”

Maisie: “Because daddy threw them out. He’s … allergic.”

But in the face of rising irresponsibility and increasing abandonment, we eventually see what it is that Maisie comes to know. It doesn’t matter how many times Beale calls Maisie his ‘favourite girl’, or Susannah tells her, “I love you sooo much!” – there is no security in words that aren’t backed up by deeds. By contrast Margo and Lincoln never tell Maisie they love her, but the sacrifices they make their sentiments sure. 

When James wrote What Maisie Knew he intended it as an indictment of parents and guardians who abandoned their responsibilities towards children. But the shadow this story casts only exists because we have much better examples of parenting. Margo and Lincoln’s efforts shine, but it’s the reflected light of God’s greater love. In order to prove His love for us as our Heavenly Father God dies so that we might live. We are nothing like as lovable as Maisie, but God shows His heart for us by taking the punishment we deserve so that we might enjoy an eternity with Him. We can struggle to put our self-absorption aside for the sake of our children but if we have any hope for their eternity or ours, it will have to be God’s love that catches baby, cradle and all.


RELEASE DATE: August 22, 2013