What Maisie Knew: An Updated Take on Henry James

What Maisie Knew

Opens Fri., May 31 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated R. 98 minutes.

The most famous children to spring from the pen of Henry James are the brother and sister from The Turn of the Screw, that celebrated and oft-filmed ghost story. The young heroine of James’ What Maisie Knew is about to receive her most prominent film exposure, albeit in a setting the author could not have imagined. Directing team Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) place the 1897 novel smack in the 21st-century urban jungle. Here, the ghosts in 6-year-old Maisie’s life are her parents: Julianne Moore plays the mother, an irresponsible singer trying to revive her career; Steve Coogan plays the father, a sarcastic art dealer.

They’re splitting up, and Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the club with which they can hammer each other. The fact that Maisie’s nanny (Joanna Vanderham) has moved in with Dad gives Mom an excuse to retaliate with an abrupt marriage to a genial bartender (Alexander Skarsgård of True Blood) in her bohemian circle. The audience is quick to spot how these younger stepparents behave more lovingly toward the kid than her own flesh and blood does.

It is hard for Julianne Moore to do wrong; here, however, her character’s nuances are entirely expected. Coogan is excellent in an unusual role for him, as he takes his smarmy comedy persona and grounds it in real-world character. That’s McGehee and Siegel’s design: The parents are terribly selfish people who do rotten things, but time is taken to establish their genuine love for Maisie. In a better movie, this might count as complexity, but here it feels more like a blueprint carried out.

Fittingly, this drama’s urban landscape consists of a series of indistinct exteriors and generic rooms, as though we’re seeing things through Maisie’s unworldly perspective. It makes sense that the two young surrogate parents are so ideal—prettier and more fun than the real parents—if what’s onscreen is a child’s wish fulfillment about her uncertain place in the world.

What Maisie Knew contains devastating scenes, as would any movie about a child in this situation. Perhaps only later do such effects feel calculated, which is somehow more irritating in a film that strives to look uncalculated. What does Maisie know? More, probably, than this well-meaning project can acknowledge, which is finally its greatest shortcoming.


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