It turns out that five miserable characters can constitute a movie, and what worked for Henry James in his forward-thinking 1897 novel serves well in modern-day Manhattan. Susanna (Julianne Moore), an aging rock singer, and Beale (Steve Coogan), her glib art-dealer husband, are separating; listening in on their bitter arguments is seven-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile), whose quiet moments of playtime barely contain her mounting anxiety. Soon, she’ll be shuttled between two homes on the whims of half-assed parenthood, and when a fresh pair of bed partners—Susanna’s bartender groupie (Alexander Skarsgård) and the divorcing couple’s nanny (Joanna Vanderham)—take a larger interest in the forgotten child, you cringe at the potential for heartache.
Young Aprile is a real find, investing what might have been a symbolic part with a visible sense of craft and patience (this isn’t merely cute-kid cinema), but it would be a shame not to mention the risks taken by Moore and Coogan, pushing difficult parts into daring registers of irresponsibility. The movie’s codirectors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, made a uniquely disturbing splash at the dawn of indiedom with Suture (1993), a bold antithriller that suggested they had the whole package. Since moving into domestic subjects, their footing has been less sure, and you’ll resent What Maisie Knew’s tidy conclusion (not true to James’s climax), a compassionate turn that comes as a relief even as it undoes a lot of hard-earned toughness. Still, go for the performances.
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