Film Review: What Maisie Knew

Directing partners Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who triumphed with 2001&#8217;s<i> The Deep End</i>, go more mainstream and downstream with this modern-day, loose riff on Henry James&#8217; late-19th-century novel.

In this contemporary repurposing of the Henry James novel What Maisie Knew, filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel accommodate the privileged lives of some youngish Manhattan professionals who’ve succeeded far better in establishing successful careers and the attendant rewards than in maintaining their families. Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a Grace Slick-like rock singer nearing a certain age but coping. She’s in a messy divorce dispute with Beale (Steve Coogan), a contemporary art dealer, over who gets custody of their six-year-old daughter Maisie (a debuting Onata Aprile).

Mostly unfolding in their designer magazine-worthy downtown apartments (loft-like, of course), the film follows the couple’s acquisitions of not quite suitable new partners and Maisie’s plight as she’s shuttled back and forth between the two glam households. Susanna has taken up with sweet, hunky, younger bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) and Beale, it is discovered, had been carrying on with the couple’s nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who has now settled into his swell new digs.

Inevitably, Maisie’s head is spinning as her warring parents and even their new partners vie for her approval and loyalty. Some of the tension and attention is taken outdoors, when, for instance, Maisie is treated to floating boats in a park pond or a walk on Chelsea’s High Line or a puppet show. There’s also a nice foray to a beach house.

The two parents do their best to share their child as each seeks to dominate Maisie’s life. But their busy professional lives lead to late or missed pick-ups at school and the challenge of schedules that have Susanna going on tour or Beale off to London for business. Maisie at one point even gets left alone at Lincoln’s bar.

Along the bumpy way, it becomes clear that Beale and Margo are having problems while Susanna and Lincoln seem ripe for marriage. The battle of warring parents eventually ends, more with a thud than with firecrackers. Even the dialogue never sparkles, nor does a heavy overlay of music, often of the tinkly piano variety, help matters.

While rendering the parents entirely likeable need not be a top priority, the character of Maisie should charm the socks off of us. Innumerable films have boasted young players who do this, but more in line with this film’s indie DNA, the kids who starred in Zazie dans le métro or the sadly underappreciated The Hedgehog and even The 400 Blows might serve as appropriate examples of the youthful magic missing here. While seemingly very comfortable with the camera, Aprile just doesn’t project that adorableness or wise-beyond-her-years vibe so critical to this enterprise.