A child’s view of divorce—Maisie looks on while her parents, played by Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgard, bicker
What Maisie Knew
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Starring: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Joanna Vanderham, Alexander Skarsgård, Onata Aprile
Run Time: 115 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Suppose you are a child of six or seven, and your mother tells you that your father is an asshole. What do you do?
If you’re Maisie (Onata Aprile), the star of “What Maisie Knew,” you don’t react—you’ve already heard your parents shouting “fuck you” at each other. But you save your love for a bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), who becomes your stepfather after your parents are (inevitably) divorced.
Adapted from Henry James’s 1897 novel, the film is set in contemporary Manhattan instead of Victorian-era London and, without ditching James’s insight into a child’s mind and some adults’ vicious indifference to her, makes Maisie and her various guardians both more accessible and more plausible. Despite the couple of hundred pages that James dedicated to investing in his heroine’s mind and feelings, I get the impression that the American-born author wouldn’t have known a child if he’d tripped over one: his Maisie never laughs or cries, never plays, only “knows”—a lot.
Onata Aprile, on the other hand, behaves like a genuine kid, and is beyond adorable to boot, though in a totally non-Hollywood way. Parents Susanna (Julianne Moore), a rock star, and Beale (Steve Coogan), a businessman married to his cell phone, get divided custody—ten days with this one, ten days with that one. What little stability Maisie had with them, in their luxurious multi-story apartment, has come from the young nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham). After the divorce, Joanna appears at Beale’s new, also luxurious apartment (complete with lavish toys)—supposedly to continue her nannying duties, but obviously as something else. Soon Beale marries her.
Not to be outdone, Susanna marries much younger hunk Lincoln (Skarsgård), who is, as she points out, “just a bartender.” But it’s the bartender who forms an instinctive bond with Maisie, and he is the only one of the four caretakers that Maisie says she loves—despite Susanna’s envious remark that he doesn’t get extra points for getting the child to fall in love with him.
If we’re unlucky, we’ve come across toxically selfish parents like Susanna and Beale (who invites Maisie to come to Italy with him, and then instantly uninvites her). Moore isn’t entirely convincing as a rock star about to start a tour for her newest release, and the writers (Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright) and directors have made her into something close to a caricature—Cruella DeVille in a miniskirt. Steve Coogan is the sort of narcissistic, goal-oriented businessman whom we see around us on Wall Street or Mongtomery Street all the time. He turns on the charm when needed.
Onata Aprile—about whom the Internet reveals nothing-—is the real deal, an immensely talented child actor with charisma to burn. I can hardly wait for her next movie.