SIX-YEAR-OLD Maisie Elizabeth (Onata Aprile) is raised by her self-obsessed parents, fading rock chick Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan), whose interests and sexual appetites eventually take them in opposite directions.
They separate and Maisie ricochets back and forth between Susanna and Beale and their respective new partners, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham).
While the adults bicker and squabble, determined to seek custody of the girl, little Maisie watches relationships disintegrate through unblinkered eyes and she gains a deeper insight into the emotional damage that Susanna and Beale have inflicted upon her and the people around them.
Adapted from the Henry James novel of the same name, although reset from late Victorian England to present day New York, What Maisie Knew documents a bitter custody battle through the eyes of a quietly observant child caught between her warring parents.
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who explored fractious family dynamics in their earlier films The Deep End and Bee Season, elicit knockout performances from the ensemble cast including relative newcomer Aprile, who is a mesmerising screen presence, devoid of the winsome artifice that handicaps some child actors.
While Moore and Coogan spare their selfish characters few blushes, Skarsgard and Vanderham are more appealing as the bartender and nanny, who provide the girl with an emotional life-raft in a sea of her parents’ insults and recriminations.