Julianne Moore plays mother to Onata Aprile in “What Maisie Knew.”
Henry James’ 1897 novel “What Maisie Knew” sticks closely to the point-of-view of young Maisie Farange, whose custody is coveted by two bitterly divorced parents — “not for any good they could do her,” James puts it, “but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other.” It’s an alternately horrifying and grimly amusing work about a girl shuttled back and forth between two parents and their rapidly multiplying menagerie of new partners. Wherever she goes, Maisie serves as the pretext for unmarried man and woman to be together, necessary social cover for the Victorian era.
There’s no equivalent ill uses of a child in this updated version. Manhattanite Maisie (Onata Aprile) takes the split of her rocker mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer father Beale (Steve Coogan) in silent stride. Susanna’s jealous of her child’s affection when around but perpetually unavailable. Beale’s even more unavailable. (Coogan puts his increasingly honed cold, stand-off-ish persona to good use.) In the novel, nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) becomes Beale’s new wife, while occupation-less Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) is Susanna’s retaliatory new husband. Both are valued primarily for their youth, ending up cast off by their flighty partners and drawn together. Here, they’re just super-nice young people (both actors are very appealing) who don’t mind spending endless amounts of time looking after Maisie.
Aprile looks appropriately sad throughout without being mawkish. Ferried back-and-forth across Manhattan via endless taxis, Masie doesn’t keep her counsel so much as look winsomely at people and wait for them to hug her. Moore shouts, begs for unearned empathy, and sings one song (big mistake), while Coogan’s as absent dramatically as he is from his daughter’s life.
The fifth film co-directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, “What Maisie Knew” has a good eye for Manhattan’s glossier neighborhoods but nothing to say about it. The film invites us to witness the end of one marriage and the beginning of a new romance — a happy ending at odds with the child’s-eye view of inevitably traumatic divorce that’s ostensibly the point. Lack of fidelity in an adaptation is no crime, but with such a pointless movie, it’s hard to know why the title of this public domain novel — whose loosely adapted plot points could have been stolen for free — was retained. Then again, maybe that’s the point: a bait-and-switch for James devotees, with the original removed and no substitute offered.