In 2001, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel made The Deep End, a deeply affecting study of just how far a parent might go for their child.
What Maisie Knew, seamlessly adapted from Henry James’ 1897 novel, is the polar opposite, showing just how little a mother and father consider the feelings of their charge as they use her in an emotional tug-of-war to get back at each other.
As the six-year-old Manhattan-raised Maisie (Onata Aprile) is either talked down to, abandoned or passed on to anyone who’ll look after her, the film reminds you how ill-suited some people are to being parents.
The guilty parties are rock singer Susanna (Julianne Moore) and her art-dealer former husband Beale (Steve Coogan). Both are as selfish and vile as each other.
The twist, one straight from the novel, sees Beale wind up with Maisie’s oh-so-lovely nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham); almost out of spite, Susanna marries bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård).
With Margo and Lincoln also on the receiving end of their respective new partners’ self-absorbed egos, they seem to take better care of Maisie than either of her real parents could ever manage.
Anchored by a storming turn from the young Aprile, What Maisie Knew is a thoroughly well-acted ensemble.
Moore’s turn evokes her adult-movie matriarch in Boogie Nights, while Coogan delivers one of his best dramatic turns.
As foils for these two, Scottish rising star Vanderham and True Blood’s Skarsgård both play down what could easily have been overly saintly roles.
Similarly, McGehee and Siegel never succumb to sentimentality, even though they dangerously skirt close to it at times – not least when Maisie grows closer to Lincoln and Margo in what, briefly, feels like a surrogate family unit.
On the other hand, it’s filled with moments that’ll make you ache; the aftershock of divorce has rarely seemed so ugly, upsetting and unsettling.
Capturing the essence of the source novel, this is a superior adult drama. Harrowing, heartbreaking but utterly compelling.