Maisie (Onata Aprile), the central character of “What Maisie Knew,” is a little girl with big problems. Her rock-singer mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), and art-dealer father, Beale (Steve Coogan), are divorcing. Both parents are seeking custody of the child, less out of love than a desire to hurt the other. Maisie listens stoically to their loud fights while she’s playing in her room or attempting to sleep. She’s heard it all before, and yet one gets the impression each argument is a fresh wound.
Henry James’s eponymous 1897 novel has been updated to modern Manhattan by the codirectors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and their screenwriters, Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. The story, by James’s standards at least, has also been brightened. I don’t see any point in downgrading the film for not being as good (or as dark) as James’s novel, especially since the adaptation is such a radical alteration anyway. The film stands quite well on its own.
The directors have made the right, essential decision to make the movie almost entirely from Maisie’s point of view. We experience her upsets without the leavening of outside interferences. And because Aprile is such an intuitive performer, we are always searching her face for the imprint of her suffering.
The surprise here is that Maisie is not much of a sufferer, at least not overtly. She has the uncanny resilience of children under siege. It may seem unrealistic that we never see her throw a tantrum or scream at her parents. Only once do we see her cry, with a single tear. And yet we always know what is going on inside her head.
When, for example, Beale, who has partial custody, throws into the garbage a bouquet of flowers delivered to Maisie by her mother, the confused little girl later explains to her nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), that her daddy did it because he’s “allergic.”
We are accustomed to movies about children, especially Hollywood movies, that spell everything out for us. The filmmakers here understand that childhood’s passage is too strange and ambiguous to be encapsulated so neatly. In “What Maisie Knew,” we are privy to the machinations of an adult world that Maisie is too young to comprehend. But the adults in this film, particularly her parents, don’t really comprehend her, either. If they did, they would feel even worse about what they are doing to her. They don’t want to hurt her but, more than that, they want to hurt each other.
The balm in this mess comes from Margo, who is initially wed by Beale to ensure custody of Maisie, and from Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a hanger-on of Susanna’s whom she weds for similar reasons. Lincoln, who works as a bartender, is soft-spoken, almost angelic, and his developing rapport with Maisie is wonderful to see. (Most of the time she smiles only around him.)
It’s inevitable that Lincoln and Margo, who both look as if they stepped out of a beautiful-people catalog, will eventually go for each other, especially since they genuinely care for Maisie (and she for them). Forgetting about James, this aspect of the film is still too cloudless. It turns the film into a species of fairy tale – a wish-fulfillment fantasy. But it’s such a resonant fantasy that we want it to be true, for Maisie’s sake, for all our sakes.
I’m glad the filmmakers chose to inject some discordant notes into the lovefest by the end. Susanna barges into the seaside retreat where Maisie and Lincoln and Margo are staying and implores her child to drop everything on the spot and join her on her road tour. Moore is a touch too strident in this film. But here, in her final scene, she shows us what a great actress she can be. Her stridency is the flimsiest of camouflages for her own suffering.
Maisie backs away from her mother and, to her horror, Susanna sees that her child is afraid of her. “I used to be like you,” she tells her, delicately, and it’s both a supplication and a warning. In “What Maisie Knew,” we can feel in our bones the cost of what she knows. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some language.)