At the center of the beautifully acted drama “What Maisie Knew” is a child; a 6-year-old (Onata Aprile) who, in the words of Henry James, acts as “a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed.” Maisie’s parents — rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore), art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) — are splitting up, and using their bright-eyed child as a weapon. Maisie, a contemporary Manhattan kid (she knows exactly how much to tip the pizza man), just watches them sadly, not knowing the right questions to ask.
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, “What Maisie Knew” isn’t intended to be a faithful adaptation of the James novel (published in 1897, in a different world), but more a story inspired by the emotional truth at its core. Maisie’s parents, warring and selfish, interact with her in different ways: Susanna toys with her emotions, cooing “You know I love you more than anything” while fobbing off the child to the nearest caretaker; Beale ignores her, or talks to her as if she’s a small adult. Left with strangers and doormen, as if she’s a not-very-valuable package, Maisie grows accustomed to waiting; what she knows is that she doesn’t always matter.
It’s a very sad story, if not always completely believable: Maisie’s kind “stepparents,” played by Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham, sometimes seem too good to be true. But you badly want somebody to smile at this child: Moore and Coogan so meticulously embody their characters that you almost want to call CPS. In particular, Moore is fascinating: a singer getting a little too old for her persona, a woman who loves the idea of a child but not the reality. She grills innocent Maisie on Beale’s behavior with the nanny (“Did Daddy give her a kiss?” she asks, through teeth so gritted you wonder how the words got out); she deserts Maisie at a downtown restaurant at night, not even getting out of the car to walk the little girl to the door. In short, Susanna’s a monster — until Moore, with one perfectly delivered line (“You know who your mother is, don’t you?”), miraculously finds something sympathetic in her.
As a tiny Alice navigating a very strange Wonderland, young Aprile will break your heart; she’s perfectly natural in front of the camera, quietly taking things in. “What Maisie Knew” packs a surprising emotional punch, one that stays with you for a while when the movie’s over. There’s a small, welcome bit of hope for Maisie at the end; we hope one day she’ll forget what she once knew.
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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org