What Maisie Knew Is a Graceful and Intelligent Take on Henry James’s 1897 Novel

Young and keenly affecting Onata Aprile conveys a wisdom beyond her years

Julianne Moore and Onata Aprile in What Maisie Knew.

Julianne Moore and Onata Aprile in What Maisie Knew.

Acutely observed, subtly but sharply written and expertly acted, What Maisie Knew transports Henry James’s 1897 novel to contemporary Manhattan with warmth, intelligence and grace, thanks to Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the astute directing team responsible for the devastating 2001 film The Deep End. This one is just as good, and is equally unforgettable.

What Maisie Knew illuminates the heart of a confused 6-year-old, forced into reluctant maturity by the dysfunctional adults around her who behave like children. Maisie (played by a keenly affecting little girl named Onata Aprile with a quiet, understated depth of perception) seems to have it all—affluent parents, pretty clothes, all the toys she desires. But her life is impeded by her parents’ volatile relationship, compounded by violent fights, screaming arguments and growing animosity. Her mother Susanna (Julianne Moore, in one of her most nuanced performances to date) is a caring but irresponsible neurotic struggling (with only minimal success) to pursue a career as a rock singer, while her father Beale (Steve Coogan) is distracted from his duties as a provider by the demands of his job as an international art dealer. They are stressed out and perpetually traveling, and their marriage is loudly falling to pieces. “I’ve done my midlife crisis,” yells the husband to the distraught wife, “now it’s time for you to get on with yours!” When they land in divorce court, Maisie is the delicate camera that records their fury and anguish in a hostile custody battle for all the wrong reasons that divides their child between them like a cored apple.

Both parents remarry out of spite, pumping Maisie for information, indulging her whenever it’s convenient to win her affection but mostly leaving her in the care of their frustrated new spouses. Susanna’s new husband is a sweet, sensitive bartender named Lincoln (versatile, appealing Alexander Skarsgård) who shows Maisie the kind of sincere compassion she never had from her own dad, and Beale runs away with the nanny, a kind-hearted girl named Margo (Joanna Vanderham) whose maternal instincts seem genuine instead of the phony play-acting Maisie gets from her real mother. At first, these replacements fill tertiary positions, but eventually they do something Maisie has never experienced—they become real friends. One of the things Maisie learns is that loneliness is not restricted to only one age, gender or legal document. Both Lincoln and Margo are neglected and unloved. Maisie has always been the one left out of the equation, the lockbox where the grownups deposit their fears, tears and anxieties. Surprisingly, it is now up to a child to make the adults feel wanted. Unwillingly, they eventually become playmates, guardians and surrogate parents to the little girl who needs them, and the two most unconditionally devoted people Maisie knows are the two people who have landed in her life by accident.

Hearbreaking and real, What Maisie Knew addresses the question “How do children cope when they’re not a priority?” The answers are brutal but restorative. Julianne Moore plays this kind of self-involved, chain-smoking schizoid to perfection—too emotionally ill-equipped for parenthood, but too immature to go it alone. No matter how infuriating her roles are, she is never anything less than solid and alive. As Lincoln, hunk of the year Mr. Skarsgård gets the kind of tender, ingratiating role he rarely gets to play, while Ms. Vanderham is a real find as Margo. As Maisie, little Miss Aprile’s expressive face and swimming-pool eyes reflect the pain and bewilderment of a child without roots or security. Every element is needlepointed with enviable cohesion by writers Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne and guided to perfection by co-directors Messrs. McGehee and Siegel. What Maisie Knew does Henry James proud, updating his timeless classicism with an unfussy modern style that is relevant to the way we live now. The year is still young, but poignant and exemplary, this is one of the best films of 2013.

rreed@observer.com

WHAT MAISIE KNEW

Written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright

Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Starring Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan and Alexander Skarsgård

Running time: 99 mins.

Rating: 4/4 Stars