Henry James’ 1897 novel about a child caught between two horribly unfit parents has been effortlessly updated to the present day and adapted to the screen in “What Maisie Knew.” Anchored by five strong performances, including a piercing turn by Onata Aprile in the 6-year-old title role, this beautifully observed drama essentially strikes the same sad note for 98 minutes, though with enough sensitivity and emotional variation to make the experience cumulatively heartrending rather than merely aggravating. Despite its downbeat material, this classy return to form for Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“The Deep End”) should find a sympathetic audience.
Watching an innocent little girl suffer nonstop neglect and subtle forms of emotional abuse is no one’s idea of easy entertainment, and while “What Maisie Knew” provides sufficient dramatic modulation for the better part of two hours, it doesn’t cushion the blow. Scribes Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne approximate the intimate child’s perspective James achieved on the page by placing Maisie (Aprile) in every scene, continually reminding the viewer of the invisible trauma being inflicted by two thoughtless individuals on the person most deserving of their care and attention.
The conflict initially manifests itself as two muffled voices arguing in the background while Maisie quietly does her homework. In short order, her parents, fiery-tempered rock musician Susanna (Julianne Moore) and perpetually distracted art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan), have divorced, leaving their soft-spoken, well-behaved daughter to drift between their respective Manhattan apartments. Each parent wants custody for all the wrong reasons, as it soon becomes infuriatingly clear that, despite their superficial expressions of affection, they’re more interested in using Maisie as a weapon against each other than in serving her best interests.
Focusing on small, mundane life moments and interactions (forgotten pick-ups at school, early drop-offs at the other parent’s apartment), McGehee and Siegel carefully dramatize the countless acts of selfishness that gradually bring about Maisie’s understanding of and profound disillusionment with her situation. In the story’s trickiest development, albeit one drawn almost directly from its 19th-century source, Beale marries Maisie’s fetching nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), and almost in retaliation, Susanna weds one of her groupies, handsome bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard).
This turns out to be fortunate for Maisie, as Margo and Lincoln prove infinitely more involved, concerned and willing to spend time with the girl, something that becomes increasingly necessary as career obligations call Susanna and Beale out of town. The script at times runs the risk of over-idealizing these stepparents; it doesn’t help that the two make such an attractive pair that one spends much of the second half wishing they’d somehow adopt the kid and run off together, a fantasy the film doesn’t exactly discourage. Yet Skarsgard and Vanderham overcome this hurdle by projecting enormous compassion as well as basic common sense in their poignant determination to do right by the child.
As for Moore and Coogan, they’re sadly all too believable as parents who not only despise each other but are utterly self-absorbed and intoxicated with the particular vices of the modern era. Beale, who has the least involvement in his daughter’s life to begin with, at one point simply falls off the map. It’s Susanna, trying to convince Maisie and herself that she’s a good mother, who arguably winds up doing the greater damage, and Moore acts with a white-hot fury that sends waves of resentment and self-pity flying in all directions.
If Aprile’s Maisie seems a bit too angelic — she never throws tantrums or answers back, and she cries only once, quietly — this remarkable young actress nonetheless manages to convey in every closeup the painful, premature knowledge described by the title. Given the emotional acuity of the performance, the film need not have relied so heavily on Nick Urata’s lush score to suggest Maisie’s internal state; a number of scenes would play more effectively sans accompaniment.
Both apartments look spotless and full of color in Kelly McGehee’s production design, captured to almost too gorgeous effect in Giles Nuttgens’ widescreen compositions; there’s a particularly cruel contrast between these beautifully appointed living spaces and the emotional poverty they serve to conceal. Editor Madeleine Gavin expertly shapes numerous minor incidents into an enveloping narrative.