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'What Maisie Knew' gives Henry James a New York spin

'What Maisie Knew' focuses on the daughter of two parents getting divorced.

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'What Maisie Knew' stars Julianne Moore (r.) and Onata Aprile (l.).

Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

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Maisie (Onata Aprile), the central character of “What Maisie Knew,” is a little girl with big problems. Her rock-singer mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), and art-dealer father, Beale (Steve Coogan), are divorcing. Both parents are seeking custody of the child, less out of love than a desire to hurt the other. Maisie listens stoically to their loud fights while she’s playing in her room or attempting to sleep. She’s heard it all before, and yet one gets the impression each argument is a fresh wound.

Henry James’s eponymous 1897 novel has been updated to modern Manhattan by the codirectors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and their screenwriters, Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. The story, by James’s standards at least, has also been brightened. I don’t see any point in downgrading the film for not being as good (or as dark) as James’s novel, especially since the adaptation is such a radical alteration anyway. The film stands quite well on its own.
The directors have made the right, essential decision to make the movie almost entirely from Maisie’s point of view. We experience her upsets without the leavening of outside interferences. And because Aprile is such an intuitive performer, we are always searching her face for the imprint of her suffering.

The surprise here is that Maisie is not much of a sufferer, at least not overtly. She has the uncanny resilience of children under siege. It may seem unrealistic that we never see her throw a tantrum or scream at her parents. Only once do we see her cry, with a single tear. And yet we always know what is going on inside her head.

When, for example, Beale, who has partial custody, throws into the garbage a bouquet of flowers delivered to Maisie by her mother, the confused little girl later explains to her nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), that her daddy did it because he’s “allergic.”

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