‘What Maisie Knew” is a loose, modern-day adaptation of the Henry James novel, about self-centered, useless parents who get divorced and the little girl who is caught between them. It’s a study of human nature, not at its worst, but at its most typically pathetic, and it goes to show that the more things don’t change, the more they stay lousy.
The opening is shrewd. We follow the wife, Susanna (Julianne Moore), as her marriage to Beale (Steve Coogan) is breaking up, and the natural inclination, as a viewer, is to assume that she is the injured party in the relationship.
But we soon catch on that Susanna is a frightening mess, which makes for a magnificent showcase for Moore, who, at all times, shows both what Susanna thinks she is (fun-loving, affectionate, artistic, no-nonsense) and what she really is (sleazy, needy, mediocre, vulgar). Susanna is the kind of genuinely loving but disturbed parent that could land a child on a therapist’s couch for the rest of their life.
As Maisie, Onata Aprile floats through the movie in what starts out as innocent oblivion and graduates into discreet observation. At first, her silence is that of a child with little to say. Later, it’s that of a child who knows what she shouldn’t say. Her scenes with Moore are a marvel: Maisie is scared of her, but she’s also protecting her.
Maisie is more defenseless against her blithe, detached father because his mental corrugations are too deep for a child to navigate. That all this was understood by a child actress means that directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel found a way to communicate with her in a child’s terms and elicit the performance, which is heartrending and sophisticated.
You know that the movie has placed you inside Maisie’s skin when just the sight of Moore, or the sound of her voice, raises your blood pressure and makes you want to run.
While the James novel was more grim and sardonic, “What Maisie Knew” finds the benefits of playing it straight. Joanna Vanderham is luminous as the loving Scottish nanny who becomes the second wife of Beale, who still treats her like a nanny after the marriage. And Alexander Skarsgard plays the bartender second husband of Susanna. Only with these step-parents can Maisie find warmth and affection, but they have no legal power.
“What Maisie Knew” is an impassioned film that inspires anger and frustration. To see an innocent little girl and have to wonder what pole she’s going to be dancing from in 10 years, because her parents were selfish infants, is an awful thing. But it’s also a true and useful thing, something that apparently needed to be said when James first wrote it in 1897, and that bears repeating.