By Caryn James | James on Screens August 12, 2013 at 9:10AM
If they hadn't kept the title, you might not guess that Scott McGehee and David Siegel's What Maisie Knew was based on Henry James' novel -- and that's high praise for this contemporary, Manhattan-set variation, with Julianne Moore as a rock singer and Steve Coogan as an art dealer. A lovely example of how to extract the essence of a book and make it new on screen, the film borrows James' challenging narrative strategy, telling the story of a child of divorce -- a scandalous event when the book was published in 1897 -- from the little girl's point of view. As Maisie observes her parents and their new relationships, she sees far more than a 6-year-old can understand.
We understand plenty, though. For one thing, Susanna (Moore) and Beale (Coogan) are emotionally neglectful parents and hideously selfish -- if attractive and expensively maintained -- individuals. We see that Beale, who is the more playful and attentive parent, is even more interested in Maisie's young, blonde nanny (Joanna Vanderham) than he is in his daughter. Coogan has been great at playing sleazeballs, but here he is fantastic in a more nuanced role, as the father who can be warm, funny, appealing -- until it's time to take off on another business trip.
In retaliation for the nanny, Maisie's Mom acquires her own blonde boy toy, (Alexander Skarsgard, in photo above). While her parents exploit Maisie as a joint-custody weapon between them, and as their own new relationships inevitably fray, the film gradually moves from their maneuvers to Maisie's far warmer connection with her surrogate parents. Maisie is wonderfully played by Onata Aprile, with a still-faced gaze that reveals the little wheels turning, sometimes confusingly, inside her head.
The world of upscale, downtown New York -- the Little Red
Schoolhouse on Sixth Avenue, taxis and lofty apartments -- is stylishly
presented, but never overwhelms the taut narrative (the screenplay is by Nancy
Doyne and Carroll Cartwright). The only
DVD extra is Siegel and McGehee's directors' commentary, more perfunctory than
illuminating, but that doesn't matter. Don't miss a chance to see this exquisite
little film. It is as absorbing, as touching, as unsentimental as
matter-of-fact little Maisie herself.