A child actor perfectly captures the pain of a parental split.
What Maisie Knew
Reviewer's rating: 7/10
Drama, rated M, 99 minutes, opens Thursday
Directors: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Stars: Onata Aprile, Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Vanderham
Verdict: A child's view of her warring parents makes for an exacting emotional journey
Joint custody was a radical concept when Henry James' novel What Maisie Knew - the story of a child caught between warring parents and their new partners - was published in 1897. This modern-day update replaces heiresses and minor nobles with rock stars and bartenders but some things remain timeless: in a divorce, children are a bargaining chip in their parents' cruelty.
As played with naturalistic enthusiasm and solemn wariness by the impressive Onata Aprile, Maisie is the six-year-old daughter of privileged Manhattanites Susanna (Julianne Moore), a veteran rock star, and Beale (Steve Coogan), a high-end art dealer. When their marriage comes to a convulsive end, both contest custody of Maisie, hoping - you quickly realise - to spitefully deny the other.
As they did with their compelling 2001 thriller The Deep End, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel use domesticity as a means of revealing untenable situations. Beale marries Maisie's nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), so a piqued Susanna weds Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a sweet-natured bartender. ''I married him for you,'' Susanna tells Maisie, pleased that she's found a stepfather to cover for her when she's back on tour.
The filmmakers tell the story from Maisie's perspective, so biting insults are heard as she colours in a drawing, and a friendly man changing the locks on the front door reveals her father's departure. Often they frame shots at Maisie's height, so her parents are cut off at the waist, and their emotional presence is just as incomplete, forcing Margo and Lincoln to take over the care of Maisie lest she be forgotten as a casualty of their war.
The film is made with subtlety and sensitivity, and it's aided immeasurably by Aprile's compelling performance and the way the adult cast work with the gifted child. Skarsgard, so often a masculine force, is a revelation as the gangly, caring Lincoln, while Julianne Moore captures the selfishness of Susanna, who nurtures her art and not her child.
The plot is truncated, so Maisie's realisation that she's better off without her parents occurs comparatively quickly, but the film never cheats by giving her a therapist or sympathetic relative to whom she can articulate her feelings. Maisie gathers her knowledge in slow, sad steps, sometimes neglected yet still optimistic about others. In such unsettling circumstances, it's hard to disapprove of the happy ending she finally gets.